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Unions defending the wellbeing of Indian railway workers

news 24 May 2023

The ITF, together with the All-India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) and the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), has launched a major initiative to better understand, and improve, the wellbeing of India’s railway workers.


Mental health is union businessThe health and safety of workers has always been at the heart of union work, but too often in the past, this work has overlooked the mental health of workers. As transport workers around the world help return their societies to normality in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are experiencing increased workloads and pressures, exacerbating the many existing pressures in the sector: an often hostile work environment, disruptive shift patterns, insecurity, and low pay.

The disastrous toll these conditions can take on workers is all too clear: stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health impacts are every bit as much an occupational health and safety risk as faulty equipment or deficient safety gear. That is why it is so vital that unions engage with these issues and champion the wellbeing of our members.

The ITF has long run a successful Wellbeing Program among seafaring affiliates, including major unions such as NUSI and AMOSUP, which provides a wide-range of support to members and their families, including 24/7 access to a counselling service. 

A first on the railwaysThis was the context in which the ITF Wellbeing Program and ITF Delhi Office, working with the AIRF and NFIR , launched a major and first-of-a-kind study to fully understand the situation for India’s railway workers.

This survey, completed in 2020 and again in 2022 showed clearly the scale of the crisis: 60% of workers reported experiencing stress at work, more than 8% had reported experiencing suicidal thoughts, and almost 9% has reported physical harm due to stress and bad mental health. The survey also showed a clear demand from a majority of respondents that unions begin counselling services for their members.

On the back of this survey, both the AIRF and NFIR have launched new wellbeing programs for their members.


Activity across IndiaThese programs involve a wide range of support and advocacy, including:

  • 24/7 phone and online access to counselling services
  • Training of union organisers, particularly among women and young members, to act as ‘mental health first responders and peer educators’, and training on understanding and managing stress and to provide support to those who experience different mental health conditions.
  • Ongoing educational sessions conducted by these first responders/peer educators in workplaces and communities across India, focused on breaking the stigma and silence around mental health
  • High-level advocacy meetings with employer and government stakeholders on the issue, including the Indian Railway Board

These efforts have already seen hundreds of workers trained, and has secured the endorsement of the Indian Government. Through the Railway Board, they have allocated specific funding to the “promotion of mental health and wellbeing of employees”, ensuring the program will be sustainable going forward

Both unions continue work with the Indian Railways Board to carry the work forward, but the program already shows both the demand for such initiatives, and sets an example for what unions around the world can do on the issue.

ITF Inland Transport Sections Secretary, Noel Coard, said:“The good mental health and wellbeing of railway workers is critical to any functioning railway system. That is why the ITF have been working so closely with our Indian affiliates on exactly this. Our affiliates in India have been on the frontline fighting to protect public ownership and pensions, and it is right that they are now leading this work too.”“It is inspiring to see, already, so many positive outcomes, and we’re confident that these initiatives will help not result in improved wellbeing, but also in stronger unions, with more active young and women railway workers.”

AIRF General Secretary, Shiva Gopal Mishra, said:“At the outset we thank ITF for taking this initiative and starting the Well Being Program. In the AIRF Wellbeing Program – ‘RAIL CALL’ we have successfully trained more than 450 men and women as first responders and we wish to train more than 1000 first responders by the end of year 2023. Our target audience being not only the Working Railway Employees and their families but even the retired Railway Employees and their families''.

Dr. M Raghavaiah, General Secretary of NFIR, said:“NFIR is implementing a wellbeing program, because the survey conducted by us has really shown the need and importance of dealing with mental health conditions at the workplace. Now we have made wellbeing a core union issue with the active involvement and participation of all zonal/divisional/branch level offices to reach every corner of India. We have negotiated with the ministry of Indian Railways for their support to make the program sustainable in the longer run.”