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49% of Indian workers are employed outdoors in scorching heat

May 29, 2024 05:11 PM IST

This analysis seeks to ascertain the proportion of workers who have no option but to work in the unbearable heat, and usually without any protection

(This data analysis was first published on May 2, 2022. It is being republished against the backdrop of a severe heat wave alert for several parts of the country’s northwest on Wednesday even as Delhi recorded its highest temperature ever at almost 52.3°C.)

Labourers work at a construction site on a hot summer day in New Delhi, India, May 2, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Large parts of India have seen severe heatwaves in the past few weeks. From April 28 to May 1, the maximum temperature was 40 degrees Celsius or higher at 191 of 384 weather stations, 149 out of 336 stations, 155 of 340 stations, and 125 out of 344 stations respectively, according to data compiled by the India Meteorological Department on those days. Summer came early this year (in March 2022) and temperatures are expected to be higher in May. Although maximum temperatures will decline in June and July, the heat is likely to be more uncomfortable as humidity will increase in the moisture-laden monsoon season -- resulting in high so-called wet-bulb temperatures. As humidity increases, the human body loses its capacity to cool down quickly as evaporation slows. With the heat expected to become worse, outdoor workers face a daunting situation. In such a scenario, it is important to know the proportion of workers in the Indian economy who have no option but to work in the unbearable heat, and usually without any protection.

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HT’s analysis of unit-level data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), the official source of employment statistics in India, shows 18% of India’s non-farm workforce works outdoors. The overall share of workers who must work outdoors, irrespective of how hot it might be, increases to 49.4% once the share of workers employed in agriculture is counted. In absolute terms, this translates into an estimated 231.5 million workers. As is to be expected, outdoor workers are the ones with the lowest incomes and the most difficult work conditions, which means many of them lead a hand-to-mouth existence, or do not even have the option of taking paid leave even if the heat makes them sick. Here are four charts that explain this in detail.

PLFS can tell us about indoor and outdoor workers

Among the many questions asked in the annual PLFS is one about location of workplace. This is collected for 10 subcategories in rural and urban areas separately, and a common category of no fixed workplace. These are: own house, structure attached to own house, open area next to own house, detached structure next to own house, own workplace away from house, employer’s house, workplace outside employer’s house, fixed location on street, and construction sites. Three of these categories – open area, fixed location on street, and construction sites – can be considered outdoors explicitly. It’s also possible that some people with no fixed workplace could be working outdoors too -- but there’s no way of measuring this.

The latest data from the annual PLFS round is available from July 2019 to June 2020, but this analysis uses data from July 2018 to June 2019 because the latest numbers do not reflect either the post- or pre-pandemic situation fully. Using the three explicit categories shows 10.8% and 10.7% of rural and urban workers, respectively, are outdoor workers in India.

PLFS does not ask the indoor-outdoor workplace question to agricultural workforce

The actual number of outdoor workers in India is likely to be significantly higher also because the survey does not ask the location question to 91% of those who are engaged in farming. In the 2018-19 PLFS, this question was not asked to at least 38% of estimated workers. As is to be expected, most farm work is outdoors and an overwhelming share of agricultural workers who were not asked the indoor-outdoor question should be counted as outdoor workers.

Blue-collar workers are more likely to work outdoors

The agricultural and construction sectors have the largest number of workers who work outdoors. However, these are not the only sectors where this is the case. PLFS data show around 10% of workers in the trade, hotel, transport, storage and communication sector also work outdoors. The PLFS data also allow us to look at the class composition – not by income but by nature of jobs – of workers who work outdoors. As is expected, blue-collar workers have a much bigger share among outdoor workers in the economy. Just two kinds of workers – those in elementary occupations and crafts and related trade workers – account for at least 75% of the total outdoor workers if farm workers are excluded. These industries and occupations also have a higher share of workers who don’t work at a fixed location.

Compulsion to work outdoors comes without basic right to paid leave

For most people who are not used to the heat, spending a day outside in the kind of temperatures large parts of the country have seen over the past week would leave them completely drained, perhaps even sick. However, falling sick because of the heat comes at a significant cost – the daily wage for at least two-thirds of India’s outdoor workers in the non-farm sector. This is because at least 68% of India’s outdoor workers were not eligible for paid leave, according to PLFS.

To be sure, the question of paid leave was also not asked to those self-employed, and most of the agricultural workforce. For the self-employed who do not have help from household or for outdoor workers in farming, the cost of being absent could be even higher as skipping a critical agricultural task can result in serious crop damage and major financial loss.

Unorganised workers, such as those working at construction sites, in brick kilns, or street vendors are always working in the open, and so it is natural that they will face the impact of heat waves, said K Hemalata, president of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). “Even if they stop work, they will lose their income. That is the main problem,” she said. “The minimum government can do is that they are not made to work in the heat and compensate them – in terms of free food grains and cash transfers,” she added.


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