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GCC Midday Work Ban Officially Begins but Still Fail to Protect Workers

On June 10, 2024

This year is on track to match or surpass 2023 as the hottest year on record, with global temperatures exceptionally high in recent months. The Gulf region, in particular, faces a high likelihood of increased and prolonged heat waves. 

The region’s extreme heat combined with high humidity poses a significant hazard of heat stress, as these conditions hinder the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating. Migrant workers, who form most of the labour force that work outdoors in the region, are particularly vulnerable to this risk. 

Heat stress occurs when the body is exposed to more heat than it can handle without physiological harm. According to health experts, a wet-bulb temperature of 35 °C sustained for over six hours can lead to severe health issues or even death. The Gulf is one of the few places to have repeatedly measured wet bulb temperatures above this threshold in summer months and at increasing rates, prompting scientists to predict that many major cities in the region could soon “exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated spaces.”

In contrast to affluent residents who are shielded from the harshest realities, with living and working environments meticulously designed for their utmost comfort, lower-income migrant workers face a different reality. Even those who do not work outdoors are transported in substandard conditions and housed in cramped accommodations that are often poorly maintained, exposing them to poor air quality even during their downtime. Adding to these hardships, accessing clean drinking water and storing food in temperature-controlled environments present significant challenges, raising their risk of dehydration and food poisoning. Furthermore, many workers in the Gulf face regular exposure to hazardous air and chemical pollution, which can cause long-term health damage.

In the face of increasingly extreme heat, none of the Gulf States have imposed policies to effectively mitigate the risk of its harsh climate on outdoor workers. Instead, they continue to rely on a working hours ban during specific hours of the day during the summer months. These bans start in the beginning of June in Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, and in mid-June in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In Bahrain, where temperatures are already reaching up to 43ºC, the summer midday ban does not take effect until July. Moreover, there are no strict guidelines for providing sheltered spaces for rest during the midday break or transport to and back from the labour accommodation. Often workers are housed in very remote areas, far from worksites, with commutes lasting anywhere between 45 to 90 minutes each way.

Qatar is the only Gulf country to revise its midday work ban regulation to include the Wet-Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) index for measuring occupational heat stress. Under the updated guidelines, outdoor work is banned when the WBGT index exceeds 32.1 °C, which is still considered perilously high.

Even before the ban kicked in, temperatures had already been extreme in the Gulf region in the past weeks. For example, Kuwait experienced record-breaking temperatures of 51ºC on May 31, 2024, before the June ban kicked in. 

The variation in the duration of these bans across the region points to their arbitrary nature and lack of scientific foundation. Furthermore, these bans do not apply to all sectors, excluding security guards and motorbike delivery drivers who spend the majority of their working time outdoors in extreme heat. Following the deaths of delivery drivers a few years ago in Kuwait, activists launched an online petition to demand their inclusion in the summer work ban.

Summer midday work bans should not be based on arbitrary calendar dates, but on actual working temperatures, increasingly reaching extreme levels outside the designated ban hours and months. Additionally, Gulf states must consider not only temperature but also humidity and pollution when implementing policies to protect outdoor workers from health risks.