Gulf workers need protection from heat

Migrant workers in the desert need safety measures against heat stress this summer


Migrant workers in the Gulf lack health and safety protection from the region’s extreme summertime heat and humidity now made worse by the climate crisis.

Extreme heat exposure can cause rash, cramps, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, which can be fatal or have lifelong consequences.

Heat stress is also suspected to be one of the reasons behind what is now termed as ‘sudden death syndrome’. Outdoor migrant workers mostly from South Asia engaged in construction and agriculture are disproportionately affected.

“Despite substantial scientific evidence on the devastating health impact of exposure to extreme heat, Gulf states’ protection failures are causing millions of migrant workers to face grave risks, including death,” says Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

He adds: “Gulf states should prioritise creating a comprehensive strategy to address occupational heat stress, and international organizations that claim to champion international labour rights should speak out about the issue.”

Read also: Labour pains

Between 2021 and 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed 90 migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Kenya, and Nepal about heat and health safety issues in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Researchers found that workers were unable to sufficiently recuperate from the heat, in part due to a lack of sufficient rest areas, air-conditioned accommodations and water.

Workers were not always allowed to set a safe pace either. These conditions cumulatively often lead to serious consequences, including heat-related deaths.

The average daytime temperatures in the Gulf during summer months often exceeds 40°C with temperatures sometimes climbing to 55°C at over 80% humidity. All Gulf states apply a summer midday work ban that prohibits employers from continuing outdoor work during pre-defined times and months.

Qatar's 2021 legislation goes further, at least on paper, as it prohibits any outdoor work when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) rises beyond 32.1°C.

Wet bulb temperature, the threshold temperature for what a healthy person can endure for several hours is estimated to be around 30°C and 31°C in warm humid environments.

While enforcement gaps remain, the 2021 Qatari legislation is a positive foundation because the wet-bulb temperature is a more accurate tool for monitoring heat stress risks, states HRW.

Other Gulf countries should adopt similar legislation because midday work bans have failed to protect workers.

“At work [in Qatar], we had to pour out sweat from our shoes,” says one former construction worker. “Our socks and t-shirts would become so soaked that we had to wring them out multiple times a day.”

Multiple studies focusing on heat exposure risks in Gulf states found a strong correlation between heat stress and deaths due to cardiovascular problems and indicated that extremely hot days are associated with higher mortality risk, with migrant workers disproportionately exposed.

A study in Kuwait has found a substantial increase in the risk of occupational injuries associated with extremely hot temperatures despite the midday work ban.

Another study found that the highest heat intensity for workers in Saudi Arabia was from 9AM to noon, while the ban is in effect between noon and 3PM.

Says a UAE returnee: “While the company never tried to make us work during the summer afternoons, people would still fall ill or faint earlier in the mornings, between 10AM and 12 noon.”

Adds another: “[Even] excluding these three hours… the air is as hot as fire.”

Climate change has further exacerbated the problem. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Gulf’s ‘extreme wet-bulb temperatures are expected to approach, and possibly exceed, the physiological threshold for human adaptability (35°C).’

Governments have also failed to enforce the inadequate heat protections they have in place. Many workers said their companies violated the rules partially or fully.

“Sometimes the employer made us continue the work [during summer ban hours] secretly. In such cases, we used to deploy some workers to guard if someone from the government or inspection department came,” says another UAE returnee.

Ironically, Gulf countries where migrant workers are exposed to heat stress are the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels and are major contributors to climate change. The hotter it gets the more air conditioners are used, and these are powered by fossil-fueled thermal power plants. 

“One day I fainted at work,” a worker in Saudi Arabia said. “Colleagues took me to the resting room … and poured water on my head. Within minutes I was conscious. I rested for a while and started working again because my colleagues told me this is very common.”

And yet, workers continue working because the alternative is no income. Self-pacing and maintaining work-rest schedules are useful heat mitigation strategies but it is nearly impossible under abusive supervisors or in time-bound employment projects.

Meanwhile, deaths not attributed to work-related causes, which exclude adverse health outcomes attributed to heat exposure, are not eligible for compensation under labour laws in the Gulf, and life insurance seldom covers deaths described as ‘acute heart failure due to natural death.’

Says Michael Page: “To knowingly put migrant workers in harm's way without substantial protections from heat is inhumane, and Gulf states need to act with urgency ahead of the scorching summer to address these problems.”