Under the burning sun in a temperature of 33 degrees Celsius, 48-year-old Dang Jianbin is sorting out dozens of packages outside an office building near the second ring road of Beijing. It’s almost lunch time, but he hasn’t had his breakfast yet. Dang’s only hope on such a hot day is to finish sending all the packages to their owners early and rest in the shade.
“I have no better options than working in the heat,” said Dang, a delivery man for one of China’s top courier-service companies, which he said he could not reveal without permission. “I have to make a living by doing this to support my children and my parents.”
China is one of the many places on the planet experiencing unprecedented heat. Over the past month, scorching temperatures have affected 900 million people across the country, killing several. The government has issued red alert warnings for extreme hot weather and suggested people stay inside. But workers like Dang, whose jobs require long hours outdoors, face a hard choice between health and making ends meet, highlighting the growing climate inequality that has put the most vulnerable groups at risks.
From June to mid-July, on national average, China has recorded 5.3 days with temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), the most since 1961 during the same period, according to China’s National Climate Center. Since June, 71 national weather stations have recorded the highest temperature ever. In June, the northwest city of Xi’an experienced 20 days with thermometers above 35 degrees Celsius, and Shanghai hit 40.9 degrees Celsius last week, matching the city’s highest on record.
This month, a construction worker in Xi’an died from heat stroke after working in the hot and humid environment for nine hours. The family was originally denied financial compensation after the incident because the man did not sign a contract with the construction company. But following a national outcry online and in media coverage, it was reported this week that the family said the company would pay for the funeral and provide some compensation. The incident has prompted discussion in Chinese news outlets and social media about how to protect workers in high-temperature environments as global warming means intense heat waves will become more common.
Although China issued a regulation a decade ago on how to manage work conditions in hot temperatures, such as limiting the working hours outdoors and increasing salaries, the implementation of the regulation lacks oversight, in reality. In a commentary piece published last week, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, urged certain government departments to do more to “improve their supervision work so that the regulations would not become something that only exist on paper.”
“To protect workers working in high temperature, regulations should have ‘teeth’ and be able to push the companies to fulfill their obligations,” the newspaper said.
The Ministry of Emergency Management, which is in charge of extreme weather policies, did not respond to a request for comment.
Extreme weather events, such as heat waves, provide examples of how inequality is an outstanding issue in climate change, said Li Zhao, a researcher at Greenpeace East Asia. While the world’s richest 1% of the population are responsible for more than twice as much emissions as the 3.1 billion poorest people, according to Oxfam’s 2020 report, the socially and economically disadvantaged groups bear the brunt of climate change and other environmental risks.
“White-collar workers who work in offices with air conditioning are only exposed to hot temperatures in a short time on their way to work, but not everyone has the privilege to have a cooling system in their living and working environment,” Li said.
Dang’s company pays a little bit more for each package he delivers on such hot days. Normally, he is paid 1.3 yuan (19 U.S. cents) per package, and it has been raised to 1.5 yuan since last week.
Even such small compensation is not paid to everyone. Chen Limei, a 35-year-old woman working for one of China’s biggest online food ordering platforms as a courier, said the company isn’t paying extra money during hot days. Chen has to work at least 10 hours a day, mostly outdoors on a scooter. She covers up all of her skin in order to avoid sunburn.
“I am not happy with it but what can I do? There are many people out there who are ready to take the job if I quit,” Chen said while busily dialing the numbers on the food packages to deliver them within the time limit set by the online ordering system.
In addition to better implementing policies that protect workers’ rights on hot days, the government also can improve its high-temperature alert system by including a humidity index, Greenpeace’s Li said. Right now, China’s warning system is based only on temperature, but humidity is also key in shaping the impacts on human health and well-being. The government also should help cities better adapt to climate change, with special consideration for vulnerable groups, by creating public green spaces that everyone can access, Li said.
“Low-income groups live in areas with much less green space and much higher density of population, so city planners should leave enough green public spaces for everyone to go to when they need to cool themselves,” she said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)