A worker on a construction site in Malaga this summer. Migue Fernández
No escape from the heat for 200,000 workers in Malaga province

No escape from the heat for 200,000 workers in Malaga province

Construction and agricultural workers, waiters, delivery cyclists and their employers explain strategies to deal with the heat when working outdoors

Cristina Vallejo

Friday, 14 July 2023, 14:56

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It’s a few minutes before three in the afternoon on a blisteringly hot Wednesday. A construction site in the centre of Malaga. The machinery is silent. But only momentarily. The workers are almost done with their one-hour lunch break. They stop at two. They return at three, probably the hottest time of day. “People have to start coming out of their hidey-holes,” said one of the more punctual workers. Little by little, they leave the shadows where they have taken shelter and the twenty or so workmates who make up the gang return to the full sun to lay more paving. Like them, there are more than 50,000 workers in the construction sector in the province of Malaga.

“It’s a bit overwhelming, but it’s not hot enough to kill you,” said Paco. Safety measures against heat stroke? Drink fluids, lots of water, cool off when you can are on the list offered by the workers. That said, they inform us that they have to buy the water; the company does not provide it. The summer timetable only changed by law on 12 July (typically 8am to 3pm).

Sergio, more of a complainer, admits that working in the sun and with so much heat is “hard to cope with.” He adds that the date for the switch to the summer hours, “is too late”. He also bemoans that the company continues to urge them to lay as many metres as possible, and to finish the work soon. Another worker comments that the intensive day would be better if they started earlier, at seven in the morning, to finish earlier and save hours in the sun, but the municipal noise ordinance prevents this.

Nor is it guaranteed that the summer working hours will have been applied by all companies. Agreement has not been reached across the entire sector: the UGT union signed it, but not the CC OO union. They wanted a minimum of two months of summer working hours, not the offer of just over 1.5 months. So each workplace had to decide what to do. Two years have passed without a sector-wide agreement and without a clear timetable for the construction sector.

What happens on that construction site in the centre of Malaga is somewhat different from the recommendations business associations are giving to employers: in addition to supplying hydrating fluids, sun cream and appropriate clothing, employees should avoid working in the hottest hours of the day and direct exposure to the sun and, when possible, it is also advisable to provide shade over the site.

50,000 workers in the construction sector

have been without a summer work calendar for two years. In theory, the intensive working day starts on 12 July, but not all companies are obliged to stick to it.

Still in the city, near Huelin park, there is another building site, or rather, a demolition site: a company specialising in underground waterworks is demolishing a sewage collection system commissioned by the city council. This company has already applied the summer working timetable. It provides its workers with water and also a small tent for shelter from the direct sun.

Getting up early on the land

On the land, unlike in the city, it is possible to start work earlier and, sometimes, even work at night. In this way, the 27,000 people employed in agricultural tasks in the province are better protected.

Baldomero Bellido, president of farmers’ association Asaja Málaga, explains that right now potatoes and some other vegetables are being harvested out in the fields.

Harvesting is mostly done very early in the morning to avoid the hottest hours. Later into summer we will also see the grape harvest, which is typically a nocturnal activity.

27,000 people are employed in agriculture in the province

Not all of them will be operational throughout the summer.

Benito Avilés, from the Campillos Cooperative, explains that now is the time for a lot of manual labour on the land, the type of work that most exposes workers to the elements. Firstly, the inspection, repair and maintenance of irrigation systems, followed later by coppicing the young shoots that surround the olive trees (grown to shade the trunks). To carry out these tasks while also trying to avoid the high temperatures, the day begins at six in the morning and ends around noon. On some occasions they can start earlier. When working with a tractor, although it is modern machinery with air conditioning, sometimes the tasks are carried out at night. One that operates all day is the combine harvester, although care is taken to ensure that it is well equipped so that the farmworker is protected. Avilés points out that if there is a day when work must be suspended due to the intensity of the heat, then it will be.

But this is one case that we cannot extrapolate to the entire agricultural sector. So far this year we’ve had to mourn the death of two farmworkers, one in Ciudad Real and the other in Seville.

“You have to let logic and common sense rule here. We have to avoid working in the hottest hours. Every agricultural business owner has to be aware of this. We are the ones doing the work,” says Avilés.

A couple working in the fields recently. Antonio J. Guerrero

This spring the central government tightened up the law on protecting workers who work primarily in the open air and have to face increasingly harsh summers. Royal Decree 4/2023, published 11 May, establishes the obligation on employers to take adequate measures to protect workers from any risk related to adverse weather events, including “extreme temperatures”. Among the preventive measures included in this legal text are “the prohibition of carrying out certain tasks during the hours of the day in which adverse meteorological phenomena occur, in those cases where due protection of the worker cannot be guaranteed in another way”, as well as adapting working conditions, reducing or modifying hours.

Working on the land or a building site are two of the main activities that involve exposure to the sun in the central hours of the day. But there are other activities that are vulnerable to summer temperatures: waiters, bike couriers, delivery drivers, gardeners...

Record year in hospitality industry

110,000 in the hotel industry

This is a record that is expected to be set in this year's high season, although not everyone will be exposed to the sun, most will be working in the hottest hours of the day.

Hospitality has set a new record this year with 110,000 people working in the sector this season. “We are self-employed, there is no choice but to cope with the heat,” said the owner of a bar on the western promenade in Malaga. He also has employees and tells them to drink water and get some air from time to time to avoid heat stroke. But he screws up his face a little at our questions, pointing out thaty this is nothing new, it’s always been hot, but now people are paying more attention to it.

Sources from the Malaga hospitality business association explain that workers in the sector do not carry out their work in direct sun, just as diners are not in the sun either. But the very nature of their job, serving meals, means they have to be working in the central hours of the day. For this reason, as with the aforementioned bar owner, recommendations are made to employees so that they protect themselves as much as possible, that they use sun protection and hydrate.

Directly opposite that bar are several beach bars where workers cook ‘espetos’ on their boat barbecues. In this situation, the heat of the sun is exacerbated by the fire used to cook the sardines. Samir, one of the cooks, known as ‘espeteros’, says he combats the heat with a lot of water, chilled gazpacho, juices... Also cooking sardines, Rafael dips his hands frequently into a bowl of water or pours it over his neck and from time to time he seeks some shade. The two colleagues, Samir and Rafael, agree that every summer the heat gets worse. And now they dread how they will cope with the hot winds that typically blow in Malaga in August.

Bike couriers exposed to the sun

The work of a bike courier also depends on when food orders are placed. Although demand is greater at dinner time, as Sebastián tells us, at lunchtime you have to go out, because there will be some orders. Sebastián said of the heat that “it is a bit oppressive, especially at siesta time”. To cope with the heat he wears a cap and is armed with a bottle of water. He constantly wets his head and confesses that, when he is lucky and his route takes him near the sea, he takes the opportunity to take a dip. In contrast, some of his colleagues try to cover their entire bodies to protect them from the sun.

Sebastián works for Glovo and reveals that the company just sends them an email to warn them of high temperatures and to recommend some measures to protect themselves. The riders, in addition to pedalling their bikes, also carry a large backpack on their backs: “It’s become part of me and I’m not aware of it any more,” says Sebastián. He does acknowledge that he can tell when it is a grocery order from a supermarket - it is definitely heavy.

Daily cleaning

1,045 street cleaners

work in the city on weekdays. On weekends and holidays their number drops to 388.

More workers whose job means they are in the open air are those whose mission it is to keep our streets clean. In Malaga city alone there are 1,045 workers cleaning the streets from Monday to Friday, and 388 on weekends and holidays, according to municipal sources. And there is a plan with general recommendations for summer working (hydration, some head and skin protection plus to be alert to the appearance of the typical warning signs for heat stroke). It was also decided to bring forward the start time for street cleaners to limit their exposure to high temperatures, so they operate from 6am to 1pm.

Furthermore, if there is an extreme heat warning, afternoon shift services are reduced to a minimum, along with the services of the single roadsweeper with a cart. Beach cleaning also ends early. Workers are advised to take breaks every hour. They may also delay clocking-on time for those on afternoon shift as well as sticking together in teams.

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