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Flooding in Kenya is another warning that climate change calls for labour justice


14 May 2024

The deadly and ruinous flooding in Kenya that has killed nearly 200 people, pushed approximately 200,000 from their homes, destroyed farms and livelihoods and shuttered schools is yet another warning that climate and labour justice are intertwined.  

Around the world extreme weather — in the form of floods, wildfires, droughts and other phenomena— will continue to destroy livelihoods and alter labour market landscapes, generating scenarios that force an increasing number of people to migrate for work to support themselves and their families. It is long past time for states and policy makers to catch up to this new reality. 

Climate displaced and other migrant workers face the heightened stakes of not being able to return to local economies and bear the costs of rebuilding homes and lives for themselves and their families. Absent livelihood alternatives at home, they often have no real choice but to accept subpar working conditions, increasing their vulnerability to rights violations in destination countries. Equidem has repeatedly documented forms of this egregious abuse including a range of forced labour indicators: restricted mobility, barriers to changing employers, physical violence, exploitation, wage theft and nationality-based discrimination.  

“A Kenyan housekeeper in Saudi Arabia lost two of her children, along with three sisters and their children in the flash floods in Mai Mahiu town,” Geoffrey Otieno, a Senior Investigator with Equidem in Kenya, said. “Her employer was holding onto her passport and would not let her leave to go home and be with her family during this unfortunate calamity.  The flooding happening right now in Kenya has serious economic consequences for working people and will only push many more into these situations unless action is taken to address livelihood insecurity and help families rebuild.” Otieno is a former migrant worker himself. Before joining Equidem, he was a security officer and activist in Qatar.  

It is not just the rapid-onset catastrophes that take place over a few days or weeks and make headlines that will force people to leave home for work. The slow-onset, underreported impacts of climate change on livelihoods owing to shifts in water availability, crop productivity and sea level rises — a succession of events that incrementally deplete assets and coping capacities — also prompt movement. 

More than 143 million people are expected to be uprooted in the next three decades, according to a report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The hundreds of millions of people that power the global economy require an urgent alignment of climate and labour justice, and — as we are seeing in real time in Kenya — nature will not relent.  

These climate impacts are not random or accidental. They are a direct result of states and businesses' failure to adequately decarbonize, including by rapidly reducing emissions, stopping subsidies of fossil fuels and ending new fossil fuel projects to prevent catastrophic climate outcomes. Coal, oil and gas — fossil fuels — are the biggest contributors to climate change. They account for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels reached record levels in 2023, hindering efforts to limit climate change, the Global Carbon Project, a network of scientists from over 90 institutions reported.  

Last year, 57 percent of workers interviewed for an Equidem report on labour violations in the United Arab Emirates migrated for employment from climate impacted areas of Africa and Asia. This further underscores the need for climate adaptation strategies that safeguard the growing number of climate impacted migrant workers.  

"Through our team of community investigators, around the world, from Kenya to Pakistan, Equidem is connected to the women, men and children who have been forced to leave home because of extreme weather and have experienced painful violations in their destination countries,” Equidem’s CEO Mustafa Qadri said. “Equidem will continue to expose these grave injustices, provide solutions and help efforts to build workplaces that are dignified and democratic to meet the needs of this most alarming moment." 


States, policy makers and businesses must:  

  • Ensure that the needs and perspectives of migrant workers are included in environmental sustainability and justice initiatives, by engaging workers and their organisations in planning for climate action such as reducing carbon emissions, renewable energy, transport, regenerative agriculture and natural farming. Migrant workers must also be included in dialogues and discussions on working conditions in the renewables and other sustainable energy sectors– this involves making sure that national and international forums are accessible.  
  • Comply with existing commitments on climate finance, including the agreed upon and overdue $100 billion/year climate finance commitment to support adaptation to climate change with a 50/50 split between funding for mitigation and adaptation. This funding should prioritise the most vulnerable countries and communities, including migrant workers.   

  • Reduce emissions: stop subsidising fossil fuels and end new fossil fuel projects to prevent catastrophic climate outcomes and protect the rights of vulnerable populations. 

  • Collect disaggregated data on the impact of environmental and climate-change related disasters on persons with disabilities. Work with disabled persons organisations to collect data. Use this information to design and implement disaster risk management activities which are responsive to the needs of persons with disabilities.