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Rise in foreign labourers returning from Gulf with chronic kidney disease

June 26, 2023 at 1:13 pm

Labourers on a construction site in Duabi, UAE [oinkyliciously/Flickr]

Growing numbers of foreign labourers are returning from Gulf countries with chronic kidney disease (CKD), medical experts have warned. Years of working under scorching heat in construction sites without necessary safety precautions is exposing millions of workers in the region to unnecessary risk of falling ill and suffering from irreversible medical conditions like CKD.

Details of the health risk posed to foreign labourers in the Gulf was highlighted today in a Guardian report which revealed that there has been a sharp rise in the number of Nepalese migrant workers returning home with chronic kidney disease. The report cited medical experts and interviewed a Labourer who returned to Nepal with CKD after working for four years as a scaffolder in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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“One factor highlighted again and again is heat. Prolonged exposure to heat and repeated dehydration,” the Director of the National Kidney Centre, Rishi Kumar Kafle, is reported saying while explaining  the rise in CKD among returning labourers. Kafle added that eating too much meat, working long hours, taking large amounts of painkillers and drinking soft drinks instead of water – all common habits among migrant workers – may also be contributory factors.

A forthcoming paper by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US, La Isla Network and the Nepal Development Society, was cited. The paper found that 31 per cent of patients receiving treatment at two kidney dialysis centres in Nepal were returnee migrant workers, the vast majority from the Gulf, Malaysia and India. Unlike the usual cases of CKD, which tends to affect older people, half were under 40. Over a third said they had experienced extreme workloads and two-thirds suffered from exhaustion.

READ: Report raises ‘deep concern’ over migrant workers safety in the Gulf

With global temperature expected to increase the problem is expected to get worse, according to new analysis of climate data, commissioned for a report released this week by the human rights group FairSquare. The analysis found that if global temperatures breach 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists have warned is likely in the next five years, most parts of the Gulf could experience about 160 days a year when the maximum daily temperature exceeds 40C (104F). With a global rise of 3C, the number of days would increase to 180.

“Inevitably, this will translate into excess deaths,” Barrak Alahmad, a research fellow at Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, who analysed the data said. He added that he is “deeply concerned and alarmed” by the findings.

It’s claimed that the policies adopted by the Gulf countries to mitigate health risk to labourers working in extreme heat are not sufficient. The main strategy governments in the Gulf have adopted to minimise exposure to heat stress is to prohibit outdoor work during the hottest parts of the day in the summer months. The regulations vary between countries, with the most stringent measures imposed in Qatar, where outdoor work is banned between 10.30am to 3.30pm from June to mid-September.

Qatar’s regulations allow workers to stop working if they feel heat stress is a threat to their safety or health. However, FairSquare questions how realistic this is in practice, “given the unequal power relations between employees and employers in Qatar.”

Alahmad also questioned the prohibition in working during the hottest part of the day. He explained that summer bans on midday work are simplistic. Alahmad advises a “more refined, risk-based approach”, taking into account environmental, workplace and personal factors.

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