Climate crisis: impact on workers leads to calls for regulatory and corporate response

Joanne Harris Monday 29 April 2024

In April, the United Arab Emirates was hit by torrential rain. Dubai flooded, after seeing a year and a half’s rainfall in just 24 hours. Offices and schools closed, and Dubai’s government implemented remote working for employees.

Meanwhile in February, West Africa suffered extreme and abnormal heat, with temperatures rising above 40 degrees Celsius. This presented difficulties for those outside – for example, players at the African Cup of Nations football tournament had to take extra hydration breaks – and was particularly a concern for workers.

Such extreme weather events have become increasingly common in recent years. Cold, heat, rain, storms – all have caused disruption around the world. The result is a growing need to protect employees as the climate changes. ‘The implications for employers from climate change break into two distinct areas, one of which is the impact on what is done where,’ explains James Davies, a founding partner in the employment practice at Lewis Silkin in London. Particularly as temperatures increase, extreme climate events become more common and there’s an increase in areas affected by flooding, he says, some places that were perhaps suitable for employment will become less so.

Davies further explains that some types of work may become impossible to do safely in rising temperatures – such as construction in hotter countries – but also that there could be a shift in agriculture and forestry in terms of what’s grown where.

You can see these cases at a symbolic level. You may not bring about direct change, but it […] can help shape climate policy

Wilhelm Bergthaler
Co-Chair, IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee

The second area that employers need to take into account is employee protection. ‘As the temperature increases employers need to take steps to safeguard workers and adapt to more extreme, particularly very hot temperatures. There’s limited legislation about that around the world’, says Davies.

Regulation covering worker protection currently tends to fall under the aegis of health and safety, and it varies widely, says Caroline André-Hesse, Co-Chair of the IBA Employment and Industrial Relations Law Committee and a partner at Ayache in Paris. ‘The level of awareness in this respect is not the same depending on the countries concerned’, she explains.

André-Hesse cites Switzerland as an example: the jurisdiction has a high level of awareness and regulation when it comes to environmental protection, but its employment law is not terribly employee-friendly. Generally, she says, ‘we have a huge difference between the level of awareness of climate change and the steps that could be implemented to protect employees.’

In France, employee protection laws are strong. For example, French employers must provide fresh water to their employees, available throughout the workday and whenever needed. There are also laws protecting employees from extremes of cold and heat, and they can withdraw from any situation that they may consider to be dangerous. These regulations were not drawn up in response to the climate crisis but can be used within that context.

André-Hesse says that similarly, a 2018 regulation in France that places responsibility for environmental issues in the hands of a company’s workers’ council is also beneficial, as it protects employees from working in dangerous conditions and from dismissal should they refuse to work.

But the French regulations are far in advance of those found in many countries. Florencia Heredia, Chair of the IBA Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law Section and a partner at Allende & Brea in Argentina, explains that in the case of her country and Latin America more generally, ‘there’s nothing here yet in terms of regulation or helping employees or employers. This should really come from government policy, especially to help incentivise companies to address this matter and make a better environment and workplace for people’.

However, there are other ways in which businesses can help shift the dial for employees. ‘Climate change is something that all companies have to address in order to meet the goals of the climate agenda in different regions of the world’, Heredia says. In Latin America, that’s particularly noticeable for the energy and minerals industry, which is being forced to implement environmental best practices that will probably indirectly benefit employees. André-Hesse agrees, noting that regulation often follows in the wake of changing practices. ‘Regulation is not always very innovative, so we have to rely on companies to be innovative on these issues’, she says.

Employees can also assist in the implementation of policies that will help their working conditions, by choosing workplaces that have carefully considered their environmental policies. ‘People are looking for a wider variety of benefits and attributes from work, and working for an organisation that takes appropriate steps to minimise its effect on the environment is important to many people’, says Davies.

Heredia highlights however that in countries such as Argentina, which has a number of economic and political issues, workers often don’t have the luxury of voting with their feet when it comes to finding employment. ‘Probably younger generations have a consciousness of all this in a more proactive way, but to be honest I don’t think they can be influential within the companies to change the workplace,’ she says. She adds that ‘we have so many more urgent and drastic issues to address that climate change – which is something that’s extremely relevant and extremely dangerous if not addressed – [is] far from our minds right now’.

And yet, as the reality of extreme weather seems certain to continue to have an impact around the world, businesses may well have no choice but to adapt in order to survive. It may end up being financial imperatives that really drive change and help protect employees, rather than governments. ‘What has really changed over the past years is that companies really understand that being conscious of the environment could be highly beneficial to them and will not negatively impact their benefits’, says André-Hesse.

Image credit: Quality Stock Arts/AdobeStock.com

Climate crisis: in focus

The IBA has created a dedicated page collating content published about the climate crisis.