Working in “hell”: gig workers suffer heat stroke in India

Every morning before leaving his rented home in New Delhi, India, casual labourer Aman fills three plastic bottles with water from a small clay jug and puts them in a shoulder bag along with leftover food. To support his family, Aman moved from Bihar to New Delhi in 2018 to work as a delivery boy for a logistics company. And that was the hottest job he had ever experienced; he had never experienced such oppressive working conditions, he said.

Parts of India are currently experiencing an extreme heatwave. Last month, temperatures in Delhi reached the highest ever recorded: 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.2 degrees Fahrenheit); however, weather authorities later issued a statement lowering the maximum temperature to the high 40s (113-120°F). In 2021, the report identified India as one of the top five countries in the world most exposed to extreme heat.

“When I ride a motorbike during work, the hot air blowing on my body makes me feel like I am sitting in front of a furnace,” said Aman, who goes by one name. Last month, he fainted due to the heat while making a delivery in a remote area of ​​Delhi, he said, adding that a trader came to his aid and poured cold water on his head. “Since the incident, I make sure to carry a small water bottle and drip water on my head and face several times a day to stay conscious,” said Aman, his clothes soaked with sweat.

According to the latest report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), rising temperatures in India will reduce daily working hours by 5.8 percent by 2030. With 90 percent of the country's workforce working in the informal sector, the loss of work brings significant challenges.

Aman's family is worried about his health and safety. But quitting or moving to another job is not an option. “While driving, I was thinking about what would happen if something unexpected happened to me because of the heat,” he said. “It scares me, but unfortunately I have no other skills apart from driving – and a family to take care of – so I can't quit this job at any cost.”

The scorching temperatures affected him psychologically, he said, but also economically because it affected his ability to meet delivery targets. In winter, his daily income is about 750 Indian rupees ($9). Now it is just 500 rupees ($6). “It really scares me how I will take care of my family,” he laments as he prepares to deliver the last package of the day, ending his 10-hour shift.

According to a report by government think tank NITI Aayog, there are 7.7 million casual workers in India – a number that is expected to rise to 23.5 million by 2029/30.

Outside a small stall in south Delhi, Sharukh, 25, who works with food delivery platform Zomato, stands in front of an old, rusty air conditioner that the owner installed. “Fancy restaurants didn't even let us stand outside their branches while we were there to pick up orders,” Sharukh said, adding that delivery workers also had to ask for water in the unbearable heat and felt “untouchable.”

Since the heatwave began, Sharukh has avoided taking orders at high-end restaurants, preferring small establishments where “they have the humanity to offer us water and a place to rest while they prepare the orders.”

“After all, I'm not a machine that can work all day in these unbearable temperatures,” he said disappointedly as he waited to pick up his seventh-shift order. He usually takes home 500 to 650 rupees ($6 to $7.80) each day.

From March to May, India saw around 25,000 suspected cases of heat stroke and 56 deaths due to severe heat waves. According to the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC), May was the worst month alone, with 46 heat-related deaths. News agencies such as Reuters and The Hindu have reported that the number of heat-related deaths could reach 80 or even 100.

While delivering an order last month, Sharukh experienced extreme pain and cramps in his stomach. Since then, he has avoided heavy meals to stay light and drinks lemonade from roadside stalls to stay hydrated.

“My health has been badly affected by the heat this year. “After work, I feel tired and sometimes have severe headaches,” he said. The high temperatures also affected him at home, where frequent power outages prevented him from getting a good rest, worsening his condition. He said his mother insisted he look for another job, but that was not an option given the high unemployment rate in the country.

“Besides, our company does little to ensure our safety and well-being,” says Sharukh, wrapping a gamcha (a soft cotton towel soaked in water) around his face before heading off to deliver his next order.

Situations such as long working hours, pressure to meet delivery targets, carrying heavy loads, irregular income and lack of social security such as health insurance have a negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of casual workers, according to a 2024 report by Janpahal, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation.

“Although we all live at the same temperature, heat stress is not distributed fairly,” explains Selomi Garnaik, activist at Greenpeace India. “Workers who work outdoors are disproportionately affected by heatwaves, as they are exposed to extreme temperatures, putting their health and safety at great risk.”

He said Greenpeace India had requested the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to declare the heatwave a national disaster to ensure “effective allocation of resources for heatwave adaptation, mitigation and mitigation”.

“Unfortunately, the Heat Action Plan is only a guidance document; that must change,” Garnaik added. “Heat action plans should prioritize frontline workers and address their needs, including reducing work hours during peak temperatures, providing lost-time benefits, and ensuring basic public goods like electricity and water are affordable. It's time to address this injustice and protect those on the front lines during these difficult times.”

Delivery driver Govinda Shah wore sunglasses and a white scarf (gamchha) wrapped around his face to protect himself from the heat.

Govinda Shah, 27, who works for Zepto, a food delivery platform, said: “The temperatures in Delhi are hellish… for people like me who are getting by.” He sat under a tree waiting for his next order outside a residential complex in Gurugram, New Delhi's second-largest satellite city.

He works 10-hour shifts to make ends meet, earning about 600 rupees ($7.20) daily. This excessive heat is physically and mentally challenging. “I developed a rash that made walking painful and also my clothes smelled very bad, making me embarrassed in front of customers,” Shah said. “Before I sleep, I pray that this heat wave ends soon, otherwise it will be difficult to survive.”