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The frontline workers at risk in Europe’s heat wave

Europe’s record-smashing heat wave has exposed a divide between workers who can escape the heat and those who can’t.

From Portugal to Belgium and into Central Europe, those unable to decamp to air-conditioned offices sweltered in buses and bakeries, on fields and construction sites as a brutal heat wave gripped the Continent. 

In Spain, the death of a 60-year-old street cleaner put a tragic spotlight on the risk faced by key workers. José Antonio González died in hospital Saturday after collapsing from heat stroke on the Madrid pavement he’d been sweeping. 

Europe’s business-as-usual approach to working in high temperatures underscores just how underprepared countries are for heat waves — and highlights an emerging labor divide.

“I have seen reports about heat that say that it’s an invisible risk. But it’s only invisible for people that are sitting in air-conditioned rooms,” said Claudia Narocki, a Spanish sociologist and author of a recent European Trade Union Institute paper on heat-related work risks. 

Extreme heat can have fatal effects, and those working outdoors and in hot indoor workplaces like foundries or kitchens are at particular risk, as well as other vulnerable groups such as older people. 

Heat waves like this week’s — which broke the United Kingdom’s national record on Tuesday and more than 100 local records elsewhere in Europe — are projected to become more intense and frequent as climate change progresses. 

The International Labour Organization estimates that by 2030, around 2 percent of work hours worldwide will be lost because it’s too hot to work or workers will need to slow down. 

The knock-on effect on profits creates potential tension between bosses and employees. That’s why trade unions are mounting major campaigns in the EU, U.K. and internationally for rights that protect workers from environments or situations where they can’t keep cool. 

Ignacio Doreste of the European Trade Union Confederation said the organization is pushing for EU action to declare heat an occupational safety hazard, placing more responsibility on employers to protect workers, and to set legal maximum working temperatures. British trade union GMB is calling for a limit of 25 degrees Celsius.

“Our members shouldn’t be dying because they’re going to work,” said Samantha Smith, director of the U.K.-based Just Transition Centre. 

Precarious, hot work

Some employers have made adjustments. A Dutch supermarket chain suspended home deliveries to protect its couriers; Brussels bus driver Junior Tadenge said he and his colleagues were told to exchange buses if the air-conditioning broke. 

But many workplaces haven’t. Among the riskiest sectors are those with precarious employment and informal structures. 

In construction, agriculture and street cleaning, Smith said, “you’re talking about a group of workers in every country who have often bad labor conditions and who are being exploited.”

González, the Madrid street cleaner, was on a one-month contract he was desperate to see extended, his son Miguel told El País. 

“I’m convinced that he didn’t stop cleaning that street until he passed out. He would think that they were not going to renew [his contract] and he was giving everything to prove that he was worth it,” he said. “This, to me, is inhumane.” 

Thomas, a 43-year-old parcel delivery worker in Hamburg, described his job as “extremely demanding” during a heat wave. Temperatures in the northern German port city reached 35C on Tuesday and are expected to hit 38C on Wednesday. 

But his formal contract with the German postal service means better conditions — he’s been told he can stop working if it gets too much — than among the sub-contractors that have proliferated across the delivery sector. 

“I’m especially concerned about elderly colleagues and the sub-contractors that don’t know their rights or can’t speak German and can’t demand their rights,” he said. 

No break for gig workers 

Gig workers and the self-employed often feel trapped by conditions that mean if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.

Ahmed Hafezi, a Deliveroo courier in London and a union officer, was starting work delivering food on a single-speed bike during the hottest hour of the U.K.’s hottest day when he spoke to POLITICO. He said the app had sent out “general information” about managing heat, the same as you might see on the news.

The message from the company was “if you’re up to working then, you know, go out and work,” he said. Deliveroo didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

All the riders Hafezi knows “agree it’s too hot.” But they feel like they need to work. He copes by sitting next to the freezers at local supermarkets. 

“You’re literally going to Tescos or Sainsbury’s and I’ll just sit down on the floor. And they’ll be asking me what am I doing and I’ll be like: ‘It’s too hot outside, I can’t take it.’”

He said the apps should shut down their operations on the hottest days and “pay everyone as much as they can.” Or shut in the day and run only at night.

Independent workers in the countryside similarly have little choice. In Spain, a shepherd was found dead in a wildfire hotspot on Monday, surrounded by the remains of his flock. 

In Italy’s Lombardy region, where temperatures are close to 40C this week, 61-year-old gardener Francesco Romano said he was trying to get as much work as possible done in the morning but that “we can’t start too early in the morning, because we can’t bother our customers.” 

When it gets too hot, “you can take a few hours off in the afternoon, but eventually, you’ll have to get the work done the next day,” he added. “Temperatures have never gone down, they’ve always been high this year. You can never catch a breath.” 

Camille Gijs and Giovanna Coi contributed reporting.

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