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India’s gig workers grapple with climate change

India’s rapidly growing gig economy conceals a harsh reality: its workers, particularly delivery agents, face the brunt of rising temperatures and heatwaves exacerbated by climate change, putting their health and livelihoods at risk.

The scorching reality of India’s climate crisis is evident in recent projections: by 2050, the country is expected to surpass survivable temperature limits.

Heatwaves are predicted to become 30 times more frequent, lasting 92 to 200 times longer by the end of the century, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These alarming figures paint a grim picture for the nation’s burgeoning gig workforce, which comprises an estimated 7.7 million people, as reported by the Indian Staffing Federation.

India’s informal economy, where a significant portion of gig workers operates, bears the brunt of heat-related stress and near-death experiences.

Statistics reveal that 60% of construction workers, 70% of street vendors, 50% of daily wage workers, and 100% of women workers spend 4 to 9 hours daily in direct sunlight, according to a verified study. This exposure puts them at heightened risk of heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and potentially life-threatening heat stroke.

The impact of extreme heat on workers is not limited to physical health; it takes a toll on their productivity and earnings too. A study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that heat stress caused a loss of 153 billion hours of labor in 2017, with India accounting for a staggering 37.5% of the global total.

This translates to a significant economic burden, with estimates suggesting that heat stress could cost the nation up to $34 billion annually by 2030, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank.

The urban heat island effect

India’s cities, often dubbed ‘concrete jungles,’ exacerbate the heat crisis through the urban heat island effect.

Infrastructure such as roads and buildings absorb and re-emit more heat than natural surfaces, leading to higher temperatures in urban conurbations. This phenomenon disproportionately affects the 49% of Indians working outdoors.

Systemic inequalities created by caste and class dictate access to basic resources like electricity, water, and comfortable living conditions, further compounding the challenges faced by gig workers.

The far-reaching consequences also extend to livelihoods. Heat-related crop damage between 1967 and 2013 has caused over 59,300 farmer suicides in India, according to a study by the University of California, Berkeley.

Moreover, it’s not just human populations facing the heat but animals as well. In 2022, over 300 birds in the Delhi-NCR region were treated for heat-related illnesses, highlighting the widespread consequences of rising temperatures.

The invisible workforce

Delivery agents, the backbone of India’s booming food and e-commerce industries, are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures.

Without a company-mandated health insurance policy, their health risks are often undiagnosed or untreated, and in some cases, even fatal. Their vulnerability is further heightened by a lack of basic amenities during the delivery process, such as access to water, shade, or cooling stations.

The algorithmic management systems employed by platforms also dictate the workers’ movements, routes, and the delivery ‘gigs’ offered to them. This results in precarious income and working hours, potentially forcing them to prioritize gigs over well-being.

Delivery agents in India often lack the autonomy to turn down gigs, decide which ones to take, or even choose their attire, as their freedoms are tightly controlled by faceless apps.


A call for collective action

Addressing heat stress in the platform economy requires a collaborative effort from companies, workers, governments, and regulatory bodies.

A holistic approach must be adopted to build heat resilience for gig workers, as the impacts of climate change are expected to increase in frequency and intensity, making extreme heat stress a sizeable public health concern.

Effective interventions could include introducing mandatory heat stress policies, providing access to cooling centers and hydration facilities, and implementing flexible work schedules during peak heat hours.

Additionally, ensuring access to healthcare and insurance coverage for gig workers should be a priority. Companies need to take responsibility for the well-being of their delivery partners and implement measures to mitigate the risks posed by extreme heat.

Furthermore, the government’s Heat Action Plans (HAPs), aimed at guiding local authorities in preparing for and responding to heatwave risks, surely need tailoring to address the unique challenges faced by vulnerable communities, including gig workers.

These plans should incorporate context-specific strategies and identify the distinct heat impacts on different groups based on factors such as poverty, gender, caste, and access to social networks.

By prioritizing the well-being of this invisible workforce, we can pave the way for a more sustainable and equitable future, where no one is left behind in the fight against the rising heat.

If human decency isn’t enough motivation alone, however, a study by the International Labour Organization finds that’s heat protections could generate productivity gains equivalent to 3.2% of India’s GDP by 2030.