With temperatures that can go above 50C, Iraqi building sites have long been a hazardous place to work in summer. Laborers grapple with bricks that are too hot to touch and tiles that can burn. Some faint and fall from buildings.
The risks are growing in a country which the United Nations has identified as the fifth-most vulnerable to climate change, prompting calls for a rethink of work practices and better safeguards — in construction and more widely.
“When the temperature gets high, at 9 a.m. or onwards, you see a worker here fall, a worker there get sick, another collapse — all because of the temperature,” said Sajad Al-Zami, a middle-aged man wearing a sun-hat as he labored on a sprawling residential complex in the southern city of Basra.
“If we don’t work, we don’t live,” he said as he sought protection under a makeshift sunshade, voicing economic reality in a country where unemployment officially sits at 16 percent.
The sector is enjoying a boom thanks to a spell of relative stability after decades of conflict, as well as investment driven by high oil prices. But soaring summer heat is making work increasingly difficult for the hundreds of thousands of people employed in construction.
Other countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have long enforced a mid-day break from work in direct sunlight from around noon till 3 p.m.
Critics say Iraq has few if any such protections, and loosely enforces such regulations as do exist. Many workers are hired informally, leaving them with few legal safeguards.
Nasir Ali Hussein, associate director of inspection at the Labour Ministry, said Iraq had no regulations specific to heat and could explore updating its legal framework. But he noted that the law requires employers to broadly ensure worker safety.
He said that the ministry received no formal complaints from workers about heat, adding that Iraqis had possibly become used to high temperatures in a country where 45C is considered normal in summer.
More than a dozen workers Reuters spoke to between Basra and Baghdad said they had regularly seen colleagues faint on building sites, and even fall from buildings when the temperature got too high.
While the authorities in Basra ordered public-sector workers to stay home recently when temperatures climbed above 50C, work continued at the building site where Zami is employed.
Maha Kattaa, the International Labor Organization (ILO) representative in Iraq, said the authorities needed to strengthen both heat-related regulations and oversight to keep workers safe.
Iraq recorded around 4,000 work-related injuries in 2022, she said, citing labor ministry data. But this was likely a significant undercount and it was unclear how many were related to heat, she said.
“We expect these types of (heat-related) injuries to significantly increase in light of the increase in temperature in Iraq,” she said. “This issue is at the top of the list of priorities for most countries and for the ILO.”
Ibrahim Mehdi, working on a construction site in Baghdad, paused to take a sip of water as he recounted seeing a fellow worker faint, fall from a building and split his head open at another site the day before.
It was up to employers to provide protections, he said, because people like him needed to work no matter the conditions.
“I have a family, they need to eat,” he said.
“I’m forced to work even if the temperature is 50 degrees, 70 degrees, 60 degrees.”
Source : Arab News