‘The Weight of the Heat’: Climate Change Further Burdens Bangladesh Tea Workers

‘The Weight of the Heat’: Climate Change Further Burdens Bangladesh Tea Workers

At the end of a day picking tea leaves under the July sun, women walk from the hilly fields down an embankment and into a muddy stream, fully clothed, to bathe before they return to their company-provided tin homes where they prepare dinner for their families.

The tea estate workers in Sreemangal, Bangladesh, say their work is much harsher now due to increased heat and more torrential rains. The changing climate also means that picking the daily quota of tea leaves, always difficult, is sometimes impossible. And when they cannot meet their quota, they are paid even less than their already meager wages.

Sreemoti Bauri_Hasan, a Bangladesh tea worker and union leader, Solidarity Center

Sreemati Bauri, a Bangladesh tea worker and union leader. Credit: Solidarity Center / Hasan Zobayer

“It often happens that in a heat wave, it’s a hardship to meet the daily quota [up to 25 kilos, 55 pounds] of tea leaves, and so they can’t make the daily wage of 170 taka ($1.55),” says Sreemati Bauri, a tea estate field supervisor and union leader.

“It’s already difficult to live with this little amount of money. If a worker can’t make their daily target, it’s difficult to survive. Due to the heat, it has become too hot for them to get their wage,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. Bauri, an executive member of the Jurivally Executive Committee, part of the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, supervises 300 women who walk long distances across tea fields each morning before they start picking leaves.

“The heat is more excessive than before,” says Sumon Kumar Tant, a field supervisor and union member. “They have to work under scorching sun. It’s as if they have to carry two times the burden—one the burden of tea leaves on their back, and the other, the weight of the heat.”

Better Working Conditions at Unionized Tea Estates
Bangladesh tea workers walk across fields on their way to pick tea leaves, Solidarity Center

Bangladesh tea workers walk long distances across fields on their way to pick tea leaves. Credit: Solidarity Center / Gayatree Arun

“At higher temperatures and prolonged periods of exposure, heat stress can lead to exhaustion, it can lead to permanent disability, it can even lead to death,” says Sophy Fisher, discussing the findings of an International Labor Organization (ILO) report on the impact of heat stress on workers. And women are disproportionately affected by the impacts of rising heat due to the type of work they perform and physical issues such as pregnancy, according to a new study.

Climate change-related hardships add to tea workers’ already precarious working conditions. An estimated 13 million people in 48 countries work on tea plantations around the world, mostly women who are paid low wages and have few or no health and safety protections, including safeguards to prevent and address sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. Tea plantation workers often are forced to rely on their employers for food, housing and education, adding to their vulnerability.

“Tea workers give a lot of sweat for their work,” says Bauri.

Workers in the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, a Solidarity Center partner, have achieved workplace improvements not offered at nonunion plantations, with employers required to provide daily hour-long lunch breaks and a medical facility. Tant cites the rapid benefit payment by a company to the family of a tea picker killed on the job by a falling tree branch as an example of how the union’s intervention ensured proper compensation.

Still, more progress must be made, he said, citing the need for pregnant workers to get more time off than the four months’ paid maternity leave granted under the country’s labor law.

Little Accountability Global Tea Supply Chain
Bangladesh tea worker, Solidarity Center

Bangladesh tea worker, Sanchari. Credit: Solidarity Center / Hasan Zobayer

Rooted in colonial era exploitation, tea plantations are rife with worker rights abuses. Accountability in the global tea supply chain is particularly lacking, with a recent report finding few corporations willing to provide the information necessary to determine how workers are treated and little due diligence across the supply chain.

A lack of supply chain transparency means companies are not being held to account for violations, says Kate Jelly, author of the Business and Human Rights Research Center (BHRRC) report, Boiling Point: Strengthening Corporate Accountability in the Tea Industry. “Many companies maintaining opaque supply chains are able to distance themselves from human rights abuses,” she told Reuters.

Based on research into news stories from 2022, the report found human rights abuses in Bangladesh and four other countries involving low or unpaid wages, lack of safety and health protections, and employer intimidation of workers seeking to improve their workplaces through unions.

Involving workers in the due diligence process is essential for supply chain transparency, according to Natalie Swan, a BHRRC labor rights program manager. “That means not relying on certification, not relying on a human rights policy or a supplier code of conduct.”

Solidarity Center believes workers must be at the center of workplace solutions, including those involving climate justice, in which the needs of workers and their communities are involved in achieving a fair or just transition to a more equitable and sustainable economy to mitigate the impacts of climate change and enable adaptation for impacted communities.

Bangladesh: Survey Details Impact of Climate Crisis, Pollution on Tannery Workers

Bangladesh: Survey Details Impact of Climate Crisis, Pollution on Tannery Workers

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Bangladesh: Survey Details Impact of Climate Crisis, Pollution on Tannery Workers

A survey of tannery workers living in Hemayetpur, Bangladesh, is illustrating how the impact of industrial pollution, harsh working conditions and low wages is leaving workers, their families and their communities increasingly vulnerable to ever-increasing climate-related shocks in the country.

“When combined with the health consequences of environmental degradation and the climate crisis, the compounding impacts on workers, their families and their communities are devastating,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate and labor justice global lead.

More than 200 tannery workers were surveyed for a study conducted with Solidarity Center support by Jagannath University Associate Professor Mostafiz Ahmed. Survey findings include:

  • More than half of those surveyed say their employment prospects have been negatively affected by environmental impacts. Of this number, nearly 70 percent report consequences from environmentally related illnesses, including wage cuts.
  • More than 80 percent say their wages are too low to meet their family’s needs and more than 90 percent are working without a contract. Precarious employment exacerbates vulnerabilities to ongoing climate shocks, reducing resilience for entire communities.
  • The majority (75 percent) of participants have suffered work-related broken bones, and a similar number experience respiratory problems—including asthma.  

Leather production is one of Bangladesh’s oldest industries, and the country’s leather exports satisfy one-tenth of world demand. For decades, tanneries in the main industrial site in Dhaka dumped 22,000 cubic meters of toxic waste daily into the Buriganga River, wiping out aquatic life and polluting ground water needed for drinking.

Amid increasing international pressure about toxic tannery-related environmental and working conditions, the government in 2017 ordered approximately 25,000 tannery workers and their families to move from Hazaribagh, a Dhaka neighborhood and one of the most polluted places on Earth, to the newly built Tannery Industrial Estate in Hemayetpur. Although the new site provides a central effluent treatment plant, all factory sludge and effluents are still not being treated and environmental threats remain.

“Engaging with workers and their unions through collective bargaining and policy development is essential to improving working conditions and developing climate and environmental solutions, both of which are necessary to build resilience for workers and their communities,” says Mistry.

In the Bangladesh tannery sector, the Solidarity Center partners with the Tannery Workers Union (TWU), which for almost 60 years has worked to protect the rights and interests of the workers in the sector.  


Report: Cambodia Garment Workers Suffer Effects of Climate Change

Report: Cambodia Garment Workers Suffer Effects of Climate Change

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Report: Cambodia Garment Workers Suffer Effects of Climate Change


Excessive heat, flooding and pollution are some of the negative environmental effects a majority of garment workers in Cambodia say they have experienced in their factories, resulting in lost pay, illness and other hardships, according to a new study examining the toll of climate change on workers in the garment industry.

Hot Trends: How the Global Garment Industry Shapes Climate Change Vulnerability in Cambodia” finds that 55.5 percent of those surveyed report experiencing at least one environmental impact in their factory in the last 12 months, with air pollution the most common (30.5 percent), followed by extreme heat (25.5 percent) and flooding (9 percent).

“What we’re seeing now is that during the rainy season, factories will be flooded, and floods cut off roads so workers cannot commute to the workplace,” says Sina Pav, president of the Collective Union of the Movement of Workers (CUMW), which represents more than 30 local garment worker unions. CUMW negotiated an agreement with employers in which workers receive 50 percent of their pay when factories close due to flooding, but nonunionized workers typically receive no wages for the days or even weeks a factory is closed.

Lost pay is especially burdensome for workers in precarious jobs: Even before the recent surge in inflation, garment workers’ wages failed to keep up with the cost of living, with their minimum wage at $194 per month.

Climate Change: Far-Reaching Effects on Workers

While the impact of climate change is more obvious for agricultural workers and others who make their living outdoors, the report makes clear that escalating heat, pollution and rain adversely affect workers in a range of jobs.

“It was not sizzling like this in the past, 10 years ago,” says Sarath, a union representative in a Kandal factory, quoted in the report. “Nowadays, it is burning from 9 a.m. In Cambodia, we have flooding and many other things … the weather has changed dramatically.”

Some 22 percent of Cambodian garment workers experiencing heat stress reported that it compromised their ability to work, and 6 percent said they had missed work as a result of excess heat, according to the report. As workers suffer, the survey finds a 2.75 percent reduction in overall productivity which, if extrapolated across the country, would translate to an average annual $290 million reduction in Cambodia’s value of export goods.

In fact, some 2 percent of total working hours will be lost each year by 2030, either because it is too hot to work or because work must continue at a slower pace, according to an International Labor Organization report.

Climate Change Harshest in Poor Working Conditions

Poor working conditions exacerbate the effects of climate change. In a key finding, the report says workers on fixed-term contracts are substantially more likely to perceive temperature changes than workers on unlimited duration contracts (85 percent versus 47 percent).

Employers frequently keep workers on short-term, fixed-duration contracts, in many cases using loopholes to allow them to do so for longer than the legally permitted time, or firing workers before they would be legally required to move onto undetermined duration contracts. With no job security, workers on short-term contracts fear they will lose their jobs if they join unions, which have worked to address health and safety issues related to climate change long before issues of excessive heat and flooding had a name.

“Climate change put a label on what we understood. These are not new issues for the union,” says Pav. “I think people can generally agree it is getting quite hotter, but more important, we want the employer to be aware of and address the issues.”

CMUW has been working with garment employers to address heat by adding exhaust fans, insulation and cooling systems to factories. Government also has a role, he says, in providing proper infrastructure such as functioning sewage systems. Key to moving solutions are the fashion brands that contract with factories.

“Brands have an important role to urge implemention and prevent climate change,” he said, citing how the recent involvement of a fashion brand sped up what had been protracted negotiations with a garment factory owner over heat mitigation.

Hot Trends” was published by Royal Holloway, University of London and University of Nottingham, with funding from The British Academy and Solidarity Center support. The report builds on a Solidarity Center-supported study of climate change on Bangladesh, “The Intersection of Climate Change, Migration and the Economy.”

Recognizing that addressing the climate crisis is critical to ensuring decent work and a strong labor movement, the Solidarity Center supports workers and their unions, including partners in Brazil and Kenya and Honduras and allied organizations working to address the often dire effects of climate change on workplaces and communities.

Labor Leaders, Activists: Women Workers Critical in Driving Inclusive Climate Solutions

Labor Leaders, Activists: Women Workers Critical in Driving Inclusive Climate Solutions

Climate change and environmental degradation have exacerbated gender inequality and worsened existing inequities resulting from resource scarcity, conflict and climate-related shocks. Women workers—particularly those in the informal economy—bear significant burdens due to the impacts of the climate crisis.

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Trade union women, activists and advocates gathered on March 17 for a virtual panel to discuss the impacts of climate change on women workers and the importance of their inclusion in developing climate solutions. The panel was sponsored by HomeNet International, HomeNet South Asia, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), StreetNet, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and the Solidarity Center.

Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center Global Lead on Climate Change and Just Transition, moderated the panel. She framed the discussion, saying, “There is no denying that the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world, with many of the worst impacts being experienced by those who have contributed least to the problem.” Mistry outlined the panel’s objectives, including highlighting the impact of climate change on women workers, emphasizing the role of workers and their organizations as critical partners in driving worker-responsive climate solutions, and recognizing that climate action requires coalition-building across social movements. 

Navya D’Souza, Regional Coordinator for HomeNet South Asia, spoke about how climate change affects women workers in South Asia, where her organization represents 900,000 workers, 95 percent of whom are women. “Climate change is also a very, very gendered issue,’ she said. And home-based workers are seeing “an exponential increase in their already unfair burden of care work. This affects their ability to participate in the labor market.”

D’Souza said climate change also means more dangerous working conditions for home-based women workers. “Heat is rising, and because heat is rising, it affects our productivity,” she said. “We cannot work when it is too hot, and in urban settings, we live in crowded slum settlements. There is no respite from the heat, and we can’t go outside and work because it’s hot outside as well.”

D’Souza said HomeNet South Asia studied the impacts of climate change in South Asia by reaching out to 200 women across five locations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The study found that: 

  • 66 percent reported a loss of income due to heat and water stressors.
  • 33 percent reported health implications, such as waterborne diseases, and increased healthcare spending.
  • 47 percent reported an increase in unpaid care work, making it difficult for them to operate in the labor market.

A home-based worker focused on tailoring, pearl stringing and applying Kundan stones on fabric work, Sushma Mishra spoke of how climate change has impacted her work. “The roof of my house is made of cement, so it is very hot,” she said. “We face a very difficult situation in cold weather. It is very cold so we have to use electricity when working inside the house. We have to use lights. And there is no ventilation. There are no windows in the house. So that is a major challenge we are facing.”

Due to climate change, the frequency and severity of natural disasters also impact women workers. Albertina Simango, Vice President of Associação da Economia Informal de Moçambique (AEIMO) said, “Here in Mozambique particularly, because of the country’s geographic location, we have been suffering many natural events provoked by climate change. Just to give you an example, in less than 20 years, we have been hit by more than 15 climate events.”

Natural disasters, Simango said, have caused a steep increase in the growth of the informal sector. “Unfortunately, women are the base of the pyramid. The vulnerability of informal women workers is so bad that even children are affected,” she said. “I feel very sad to see women who lose everything they had because of climate events, and afterward they have to have their children negotiate and do business to help support the families.”

Additionally, women workers often work longer hours and face violence and harassment due to traditional gender roles.”They have to work very, very long hours to support their families. Some of them have to work 18 hours a day. This means getting up at 5 a.m. when it’s still dark and going back home at 9 p.m.”

According to Rina Begum, President of the Bangladesh Waste Pickers Union, environmental workers like waste pickers get short shrift. “Waste pickers keep the city clean, but they don’t get good prices. We have no value. If the government provided jobs, we could have a better life.” 

In Brazil, Carmen Helena Ferreira Foro, secretary-general, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), said that the effects of climate change are exacerbated by industrial projects that do not consider the impact and are slow to benefit indigenous populations. “Everything is interconnected,” Foro said, “deforestation, water problems, rains — all the causes and effects of climate change impact the livelihoods of indigenous populations.”

“I am a family farmer from a part of the Amazon. I have to daily live with large projects in the Amazon region. They do not consider people’s lives. They exploit them and never redistribute the meaning of this energy,” she said.

“It took us 20 years to get any energy after they built a dam,” she said. “And now we are undergoing a new phase of building a waterway in the same river that was already affected.”

Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, Regional Manager of the Shifting the Power Coalition, wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing the importance of including women workers in planning responses to climate-related disasters. “We’ve been working to ensure that women who have the knowledge, skills and capacity can articulate their needs and be at the table as they want to, and to be able to lead in disaster planning and response.

“The response aspect of disaster management is critical because the economic strategy, the recovery strategy, is vital at that stage,” Bhagwan-Rolls said. “The post-disaster needs assessment requires the feminist analysis, requires the visibility of women, particularly women workers in all the diversities presented by the speakers today.”

View the webinar in English, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi.


Colombian Workers Connect Clean Energy, Good Jobs

Colombian Workers Connect Clean Energy, Good Jobs

Organizations representing Colombia’s energy and mining sector workers are supporting the country’s transition to cleaner energy while preserving decades-long, hard-fought progress in turning often unsafe and poorly paid jobs into safer, family-sustaining livelihoods.

A joint declaration signed late last year formalizes the commitment of Colombia’s national labor federation Central Unitaria de Trabajadores–CUT and three of its largest mining- and energy-sector unions—Sintracarbón, Sintraelecol and Unión Sindical Obrera (USO)—to an urgent national effort to abandon fossil fuels and adopt new technologies, assuming those policies prioritize:

  • National policies that support full compliance with Paris Agreement goals
  • Government oversite of such policies, including all climate interventions implemented by private mining and energy companies in Colombia
  • The preservation and strengthening of decent work in mining and energy sectors, and of their unions.

“Colombian energy- and mining-sector workers—and the communities they sustain—must participate in every step of the process to ensure workers’ rights to safety and good jobs are supported by the country’s energy transition policies,” says Carlos Guarnizo, Solidarity Center Colombia-based program coordinator.

“Transition to a new energy agenda should be negotiated with us and the rest of society,” to ensure a fair and democratic model of energy production, says the declaration. Energy- and mining-sector workers should be consulted because they have the knowledge and experience to conceive, propose and advance the discussions that will shape the policies on transition to clean energies. Declaration signatories will be working in coalition with one another, as well as with academics, social and environmental justice movements and the international community, to devise such a model.

“On Earth Day, the Solidarity Center stands with Colombian energy- and extractive-sector unions—and all others around the world—as they drive the vision for a fair or just transition to a cleaner, more inclusive, and more equitable economy,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center global lead on climate change and just transition.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. Carbon dioxide emissions increased by almost 90 percent from 1970 through 2011, with emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributing almost 80 percent of that increase. About 50 percent of Colombia’s electrical-generation capacity is in the hands of privately owned companies.

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