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Understanding the gendered impacts of air pollution in the world of work

Not much is known about the effects of air pollution on, for example, those in informal employment, or street workers and vendors, or how these impacts differ for men and women. A new SEI research project aims to get a better understanding of the connections between air quality, gender, and work. 

Daily exposure to high levels of air pollution is a fact of life for many informally employed, including street workers and vendors. Photo: Egor Myznik / Unsplash.

Diane Archer / Published on 24 November 2020

Countries in Asia have witnessed drastic increases in air pollution mainly as a consequence of their rapidly developing economies. The effects of air pollution on the labour market from a gendered perspective are among the least known dimensions of this global challenge. Daily exposure to high levels of air pollution are a fact of life for many, and earning an income brings with it associated health risks outside usual occupational safety and health considerations.   

Furthermore, preliminary studies have pointed to the correlation between long-term exposure to PM2.5 (fine particles of pollution) and the increase in COVID-19 death rate. These direct personal health impacts have implications for worker productivity, employment, the economy, and society. The World Bank indicated the magnitude of resulting welfare losses was the equivalent of 7.5 and 7.4% of GDP in 2013 for East Asia and the Pacific, and South Asia, respectively, excluding lost productivity due to absenteeism and other impacts. 

 The type of work and the conditions in which workers do it are big determinants of their exposure to air pollution, and sensitivity to its impacts.  

A labourer, motorbike delivery driver or street sweeper with no access to protective equipment will face greater exposure than an office worker in the same city. Very often, it is those in informal employment, with little income security or access to social protection, health services and social safety nets, who are the most exposed. Women, young people and migrant workers are disproportionately represented in the informal economy and often work in low-skilled or informal jobs where they lack information about their rights, health and safety, including at work.  

Exposure to poor air brings increased risk of serious health problems. These include heart or cardio-vascular disease, strokes, lung cancer and damage to immune, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems. There are also significant cost implications for public health systems.  

While there is substantial research on gendered exposure to air pollution in the home from cooking fuels, there is little existing research on how the impacts of air pollution in the workplace differ between men and women. 

Beyond immediate health concerns, there are also indirect impacts which may see gendered effects. For example, policies to close schools when air quality reaches dangerous levels create additional caring responsibilities for working parents, as do the health impacts of poor air on children. The responsibility to care for children or other dependents generally falls on mothers who may have to take time off work and suffer a loss of income. This reinforces gender inequalities in caregiving and may result in women continuing to work or taking on extra work when they themselves are suffering from the effects of poor air quality 

Therefore, there is a need to explore how policies on air quality, such as limits on industrial emissions or crop burning regulations, which are rarely integrated with other sectors such as labour, can have gendered effects. These may include inequality and exclusion, while the costs imposed on employers may ultimately be borne by their workers. A better understanding of these broader consequences on workers can help us to identify entry points for mitigating the gendered impacts of air pollution for youth, migrants, and other vulnerable workers. 

There is also a need to address these questions and produce knowledge that can be used by policymakers, employers’ and workers’ organizations, businesses and civil society, at the intersection of gender, labour and the environment. This will contribute to mitigating environmental degradation and supporting a just transition to low carbon economies. 

Furthermore, participation and capacity building in governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations is required to raise awareness about air quality in the context of work. These stakeholders can help identify potential solutions that create productive employment opportunities. 

Concerns over climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic, are creating an opportunity for a green recovery. It is important that this extends to ensuring related benefits of clean air are evenly distributed across the world of work, to avoid perpetuating gender inequalities.  

With support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), SEI will collaborate with the International Labour Organization (ILO) over the next two years to develop a better understanding of the interlinkages between air quality, gender, and the world of work. Focusing on Southeast Asia and East Asia, the project will seek to identify evidence-based recommendations from regional case studies, to improve air quality and the quality and quantity of employment. The project will work closely with a range of groups from government agencies to workers’ and employers’ organizations, and using regional case studies to help identify, economic, employment and labour market policy options, and opportunities to improve the quality of jobs and contribute to a healthier and more resilient economy 

Written by

Diane Archer

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Topics and subtopics
Air : Cities, Pollution / Gender : Adaptation
Related centres
SEI Asia

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