Feeling the heat: Who are the most vulnerable workers impacted by the Philippines’ record-breaking heatwaves?

As the Philippines endures one of the hottest periods on record, Eco-Business investigates the plight of workers who are most vulnerable to extreme heat.

conmstruction workers Philippines
Workers repair a section of Earnshaw Street near Espana Boulevard in Manila while a thermal camera shows street surface temperature readings of as high as 46.1℃. The Philippines is currently in the grip of a severe El Niño, aggravated by the climate crisis. Image: Greenpeace

When Jacob Christy, a 59-year-old security officer in a local government office in the town of Pili in Camarines Sur, the Philippines, reported for duty on the last week of April, he suddenly complained of chest pain. His co-workers noticed that he looked pale and advised him to go to the hospital.

He insisted on going home instead to rest. While he was asleep, his wife Heidee heard him cough and checked on him, only to find him unconscious. She rushed him to the hospital but it was too late.

On that same week, three other government workers in the town of Pili suffered the same fate.

Their families blame the heat that month, when temperatures peaked at 48°C in the province, topping the list of areas across the country that experienced dangerous temperatures over that period. It is unclear if their death certificates cited heat as a cause.

The Department of Health reported earlier this month that the number of cases of heat-related illnesses so far in 2024 has reached 77, including those who may have died due to the hot weather.

heidee christy heat stroke

Heidee Christy is interviewed by local media about how her husband might have died from heat stroke in the town of Pili in Camarines Sur, the Philippines. Image: UNTV

The Philippines has endured a heatwave that started in April, forcing local government units like those in Pili to adjust the work shifts of workers who spend long hours under the sun to do field work.

Blistering temperatures of above 40°C scorched much of Asia in April, causing deaths, water shortages, crop losses and widespread school closures.

Questions have been raised as to whether the heatwave could be a result of climate change or a naturally occuring phenomenon, since the months of March to May are typically the hottest in tropical countries like the Philippines. 

But a new study released on 15 May showed that the heatwave events in the Philippines and the rest of the region would not be possible without the effect of human-induced climate change.

The El Niño event this year has worsened the situation, said the report by the World Weather Attribution group, an academic group that studies extreme meteorological events.

Several heat records have been broken this year, including the highest overnight minimum temperature of 30.2°C recorded at Sangley Point weather station in Manila on 29 April. 

PH heat map

Provinces in the Luzon island group experienced the most severe heat impacts, as illustrated by the intense red colour on the map. The World Weather Attribution report based the analysis on the last two weeks of April, which is generally the hottest time of the year in the Philippines. Source: WWA 

Dangerously high temperatures of up to 46°C were expected in various cities and municipalities in the archipelago during the week of 20 May, said state weather bureau PAGASA. The heat index measures what a particular temperature feels like, taking into account humidity.

Heat impacts certain labour groups like construction workers, transport drivers, farmers, and fishermen disproportionately, according to the report authors.

It read: “Certain groups are much more vulnerable or exposed to extreme heat than others, such as people with physiological conditions which make them more susceptible to heat stroke, as well as outdoor workers including informal workers and farmers, racial and ethnic minority groups, and those with lower income.”

Underreported casualties?

In the Philippine labour force, those with the most number of heat-related casualties over the past decade have been from the manufacturing sector, with 1,250 workers treated for heat exhaustion and heat cramps from 2011 to 2021, a PSA spokesperson told Eco-Business.

The retail sector, which includes shop keepers who do not work in airconditioned shopping malls and mechanics, tallied more than 700 employees who suffered similar illnesses, as they remain in their posts despite poor store ventilation. 

Delivery workers in the transportation and storage sector were also severely affected by heat-related illnesses, as these workers carry out physically demanding tasks such as carrying goods and driving vehicles that often lack air conditioning.

The number of occupational safety cases dwindled between 2019 and 2020 because of the quarantine period brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and as a result of the implementation of the new labour law in 2018 which strengthened protection of employees against hazards in the work environment, said a PSA spokesperson.

Local government unit workers from the public sector like those who died in Camarines Sur were not included in the survey.

Transport network vehicle service workers, also known as ridesharing or app-based ride-hailing services, were likewise not part of the sample since they are considered independent contractors and have no employee-employer relationship.


Partido Manggagawa spokesperson Dennis Derige said in a press briefing on 30 April that food delivery riders are most affected by a lack of heat-resistant facilities as they are often made to wait outside of restaurants when picking up delivery orders.

Food companies should provide a riders hub with adequate protection from the heat or allow delivery riders to stay inside establishments until orders are ready, he added.

Construction workers were part of PSA’s survey, but the number of casualties are not representative of what really happens on the ground, said Santiago Nolla, secretary general of the National Union of Building and Construction Workers, which is composed of more than 3,000 construction workers nationwide.

“Among the labour force, the most vulnerable and exposed to the scorching heat are construction workers,” Nolla told Eco-Business.

“In fairness to ride-sharing drivers, they can go to cold places like malls while doing business or accepting orders from customers, unlike in our industry where we cannot choose where we work. Being under the sun or in the pouring rain is part of the job.”

In fairness to ride-sharing drivers, they can go to cold places like malls while doing business or accepting orders from customers, unlike in our industry where we cannot choose where we work.

Santiago Nolla, secretary general, National Union of Building and Construction Workers

Underreporting of extreme heat cases is an issue, as companies often do not report such incidents to the department of labour for fear of being issued with a work stoppage order, which entails hefty fines and could taint their reputation, said Nolla.  

A work stoppage order (WSO) may be implemented by the employer, safety officer or worker if there is “imminent danger” in the workplace that affects one’s health or welfare. 

Rene Ofreneo, former dean of the school of labour and industrial relations at the University of the Philippines, said the most affected workers for heat-related illnesses are those in the informal economy and members of the formal sector who are not regularised.

Informal economy workers include small farmers, domestic workers, street vendors and waste pickers. Formal economy workers who are under a termed contract include construction workers and transport network vehicle service workers.

“Most of informal workers are not covered by social security and employees’ compensation laws. As for the non-regular workers in the formal sector, they often have difficulty getting compensation or assistance for injuries because employers do not treat them as their own employees who they are obligated to,” he said.

When advisories fail to protect workers against heat

The Philippines is governed by a law that requires employers to take preventative measures to reduce extreme heat exposure and adjust working hours accordingly.

The health department also issued an advisory in April for safety measures against heat stress, including reminding the public to limit outdoor activity from 10am to 4pm.

But these measures do not give workers sufficient protection, said Nolla.

“It does not address the primary relief to illnesses borne out of extreme heat like skin cancer, heat stroke and hypertension,” he said.

Various cooling options such as trees or forests, water, and air conditioning need to be evaluated while keeping in mind that increased use of electricity will lead to more carbon emissions. 

Rodel Lasco, executive director, Oscar M. Lopez Center

Labour groups called for compensation for workers who suffer from heat stroke, as well as bills that give incentives like special emergency or calamity leave in cases of extreme weather.

Filipino climate scientist Rodel Lasco called for a heat action plan to be implemented in the country for a more “integrated approach” in battling heat.

“Various cooling options such as trees or forests, water, and air conditioning need to be evaluated while keeping in mind that increased use of electricity will lead to more carbon emissions,” said Lasco, who is also executive director of the Oscar M. Lopez Center, a climate research foundation.

“The design of buildings and houses must account for rising heat loads, with specific measures differing in rural and urban areas.”

The city government of Manila announced that it will formulate a heat index action plan matrix that will serve as a guide for its response efforts to scorching temperatures as the El Niño phenomenon persists.

“This plan will outline specific actions based on the heat index, including recommendations for staying indoors, suspending outdoor activities and work, and limiting water usage by businesses,” Manila mayor Honey Lacuna told local media.

Cities around the world are increasingly adopting heat action plans as global temperatures rise.

India was the first to launch a heat action plan more than a decade ago. It has been credited for preventing many cases of heatstroke, thanks to actions including text message warnings sent to everyone in the city when temperatures are forecast to exceed 40°C.

It has initiatives targeted at poor and vulnerable communities, such as painting tin and asbestos roofs white to reflect the heat. Public parks are kept unlocked throughout the day to allow street vendors and construction workers to benefit from the shade of trees during the hottest hours.

Bangladesh appointed a chief heat officer for its capital city, Dhaka, last year, but there has been scant detail about how this has helped the metropolis cope with high temperatures.

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