Sex Workers Join the Indian Labor Movement

Sex worker activists have long argued that sex work is work like any other work. But what are the prospects for sex worker collective action inspired by the labor movement? The labor of sex falls outside the purview of the traditional trade union: sex workers are partly criminalized, often with no fixed “employer” with whom to negotiate, and operate through a range of often contingent work arrangements, from gift-based relationships with a few long-term partners to highly organized brothel work. Yet these complexities in sex work are not exceptional—rather, they are paradigmatic of India’s labor economy, in which 93 percent of the labor force is engaged in informal labor that is not formally protected. In turning to the state as the target for their collective demands, sex workers form part of a larger shift in labor organizing in India in which the idea of the “worker”—and the sites of labor activism—are being redefined. Sex workers highlight the role of informality, gender-based violence, and criminalization in shaping working conditions, and merge questions of worker entitlements to questions of sexuality and citizenship.

This article discusses the role of labor movement approaches in sex worker activism at the Karnataka Sex Workers Union (KSWU) in Bangalore, India, drawing on 8 focus group discussions and our own experiences as researchers and supporters of KSWU. Because of its wide and vibrant network of sex worker organizations, India offers an important example of the prospects and challenges for sex worker unionism in the global South. In Kolkata, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), which claims over 65,000 members, began as an HIV prevention project but from the beginning drew on an occupational health and labor rights framework. India also has two active national sex worker advocacy networks of community-based sex worker organizations. The relationship between these networks and labor activism in India has been uneven, but invoking the labor movement plays an important symbolic role in affirming sex work’s position as labor and beginning to make links with other workers in the informal sector.

The analysis of sex work as labor is not new: Marx wrote in 1844 that “prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer,” and feminist scholars have increasingly challenged views of sex workers as criminal or deviant by emphasizing their similarities with other reproductive laborers. This analysis has taken shape in conversation with activist movements: organizations of sex workers have lobbied for sex workers’ rights in Ecuador, Malaysia, Thailand, South Africa, Uruguay, and India. However, sex worker organizations that actively position themselves as labor unions are relatively rarer. Several sex worker organizations—including the International Union of Sex Workers in the United Kingdom, Red Thread in the Netherlands, and AMMAR in Argentina—have formal affiliations with trade union “umbrella” organizations. Hardy characterizes three “waves” of sex worker organizing around the world: a first wave of “deviance liberation” movements in the 1970s and 1980s, a second wave of movements around the world that began with HIV/AIDS goals and moved toward a greater emphasis on labor issues and human rights, and a third wave of movements that specifically identify as trade unions, such as KSWU.

Organizing as Laborers: The Karnataka Sex Workers Union

The KSWU is a union of women, men, and transgender sex workers who live in the southern state of Karnataka, India. Currently, at least 2,500 people have registered with KSWU. The union’s first organized public action was a rally on May 1, 2006, as an affiliate of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI). NTUI, a national federation of roughly three hundred independent trade unions in India, was formed in 2001 by a group of sixteen left democratic unions, with a particular focus on women workers and unorganized workers. Though KSWU has not always collaborated actively with NTUI, its affiliation with NTUI—and NTUI’s openness to working with sex workers—provided a source of support early in KSWU’s career and served as an affirmation of the union’s symbolic identification with the labor movement.
Within Karnataka, KSWU has distinguished itself from existing sex worker organizations—many of which focus on HIV prevention and the health needs of sex workers—with its emphasis on legal rights and trade union structure. For example, unlike many other sex worker organizations in India, KSWU does not receive funding from international donors and has applied for official state registration as a trade union. Members pay a joining fee and then a monthly subscription. Although KSWU has not yet been officially recognized by the state as a trade union, its insistence on registering as a trade union is central to its organizational ideology. As one leader explained, “We want sex work to be considered a profession. Like how there are clear identities for auto drivers, lorry drivers. The same way, our profession has to be respected.”

Redefining Working Conditions: Aims and Strategies

Because many aspects of sex work are criminalized in India—although exchanging sex for money itself is not illegal, soliciting in a public place and living off the earnings of a prostitute are, leading to police officers frequently harassing sex workers on nebulous charges—sex workers’ relationship to the law centrally shapes their working conditions. Furthermore, because KSWU’s members are often poor, lower-caste women, or transgender people stigmatized through multiple mechanisms, the dynamic intersections of class, caste, sexual, and gender violence shape their lives whether they are working or not. Thus, KSWU’s main activities blur the boundaries between work and other aspects of sex workers’ lives, going beyond areas traditionally considered the tasks of a union. The decriminalization of sex work is one of KSWU’s major long-term advocacy goals, because the partly criminalized status of sex work leads to regular arrest and abuse on the job. The union also engages in day-to-day activities that seek to improve working conditions, addressing violence, supporting civil rights, and providing emotional support. One strategy KSWU uses for day-to-day support is a 24/7 helpline. The helpline supports sex workers who are facing violence (or the threat of violence) from the police or goons, at public spaces or at home. Besides immediate intervention by full-time staff, who might, for example, argue against unlawful detention at the police station, KSWU also follows up by sending out petitions, contacting the media, or holding rallies. It also provides material, emotional, and/or legal support through outside supporters. For example, KSWU has successfully intervened in cases of sexual harassment in medical settings, human trafficking, and violations of confidentiality by the TV media.

Another key goal of KSWU has been to expand sex workers’ access to social citizenship. Many sex workers do not possess ration cards (which allow them access to subsidized food grains) or voter identity cards (which serve as primary identification documents and allow them to vote) because they cannot provide proof of address or they face harassment from government officials when they apply. KSWU staff members assist sex workers in applying for these state benefits, providing basic protection from extreme poverty. KSWU has also provided support to the children of sex workers, who often face severe discrimination, in obtaining admission to schools and hostels.

The home, too, is a site where’ sex workers rights are violated and compromised. KSWU has intervened in cases of sex workers’ financial, physical, and emotional abuse by family members or partners. The members offer each other emotional and social support, spending time with each other, sharing food and housing, accompanying one another to hospitals, taking care of each other’s children, and passing on make-up tips or clients. Sex workers are particularly vulnerable to isolation and depression, and KSWU might also connect members with a counselor. In a context where many sex workers operate in secret and have limited support networks, KSWU becomes a uniquely supportive, non-judgmental space. KSWU members often reiterate their individual journeys toward greater courage to speak out against violations they once imagined were natural or deserved.

Within and outside this supportive space, recognition as a “worker” plays a role as much symbolically powerful as legally relevant. As for other informal workers in India, access to an identity card and formal identification as a worker is often cited as a key benefit of KSWU membership. The identity card indicates the sex worker’s affiliation with the KSWU, and, symbolically, her membership in a recognized organization of rights-bearing citizens, in contrast to her isolation and lack of legal recourse. Sex workers use their KSWU identity cards to negotiate with police and officials, while traveling on trains, or even to assert themselves with abusive partners and clients. In the context of criminalization and violence, symbolic status as a worker has real effects for emotional confidence and protection from abuse.

Alliances with Feminist, LGBTI, Labor, and HIV/AIDS Organizations

KSWU’s early inspiration drew from the organizing efforts of Indian informal workers. It also served as a response to existing local models of sex worker organizing. Most sex worker organizations in Karnataka work on HIV prevention, which, particularly in the early 2000s, received significant funding from state and international donors. Although HIV prevention programs offered sex workers important information on HIV and sexual health, basic leadership training, and initial exposure to navigating state bureaucracy, they also imposed narrowly defined public health targets that sidelined work on legal reform or working conditions. Although the programs did address some issues of social and legal empowerment, these activities were at least officially secondary to HIV prevention targets.

KSWU’s formation as a trade union served as an alternative to these approaches to sex worker organization for HIV prevention. In addition to organizing around working conditions and legal reform and eschewing HIV prevention activities, KSWU has also directly challenged abuses of sex workers within HIV prevention programs. For example, KSWU conducted a flash protest at the state government’s celebration of World AIDS Day to draw attention to the ways in which the state AIDS program compromised sex workers’ confidentiality and autonomy, sometimes even forcibly testing them for HIV. KSWU also protested low pay of sex workers and sexual minorities working as peer educators in HIV prevention programs. The goal of creating a space uniquely for sex workers, separate from HIV prevention, was key in the early stages of KSWU’s formation. KSWU has aligned itself with other sex worker organizations in India that, while conducting HIV prevention programs, emphasize the social and legal rights of sex workers, such as DMSC in Kolkata and VAMP in Sangli, Maharashtra.

In addition to responding to HIV/AIDS organizations and identifying with the labor movement, KSWU is also inspired by feminist, LGBTI, and Dalit11 movements. Several of KSWU’s leaders and a majority of the members are Dalits, and issues of women’s oppression and sexual violence often resonate deeply for sex workers. Meetings of KSWU’s Executive Committee might include songs on Dalit liberation, for example, and KSWU has participated in local events for International Women’s Day. Perhaps KSWU’s strongest support has come from local LGBTI organizations, partly because of the major overlap in membership—many members are same-gender-loving men or transgender people—and partly because of shared experiences in HIV prevention programs.

These collaborations have often come with uncertainties. Indian feminist and Dalit groups were initially uncomfortable with questions of sexuality. Over time, LGBTI issues have gained some support, but many Dalit groups view sex work as sexual exploitation of women, and often Dalit women in particular. However, KSWU has worked steadily to forge alliances and promote its view that the recognition of sex work as work is the best way to combat sexual exploitation within the profession. Members of KSWU have participated in rallies in support of nuclear non-proliferation, gender justice, Dalit land rights, and universal basic pensions. For sex workers, who are often invisible as citizens, such bonds of empathy and solidarity are particularly crucial and stem from a dynamic understanding of social inequality.

Another challenge to KSWU’s alliance-building has been its relationship to NGOs. KSWU initially looked to NGOs for basic support. For a criminalized, deeply marginalized group lacking a “shop floor” for consciousness raising, and seeking to provide an alternative to well-established health-oriented sex worker organizations, such support is essential. Many of KSWU’s supporters are current or former leaders at Sangama, a sexual minority NGO in Bangalore. Sangama initially played a facilitative role, creating spaces for dialogue and basic resources. As KSWU gained in force, sex worker leaders quickly started to assert themselves and operate more independently. The relationship, however, is never without tension and the risk of losing autonomy or political vibrancy.

“Worker” identity provides an alternative to the existing state relationship to sex workers: as potential criminals, deviant fallen women, hapless victims of sexual violence, or vectors of HIV/AIDS. In aligning the exploitation of sex workers with the exploitation of all workers, sex workers de-exceptionalize their work and make alliances with informal workers such as domestic workers, construction workers, and wastepickers possible. Thus, KSWU leaders and members are deeply committed to identifying with the labor movement and talk about the relief they feel when recognized as similar to other workers. KSWU has also collaborated with unions of informal workers involved in stigmatized “dirty” work, such as wastepickers. In practice, though, affiliations with informal worker groups are not always easy to sustain, and the support is sporadic. Some local domestic worker groups, for example, have seen KSWU as a challenge to their respectably feminine politics. KSWU’s application to register with the state as an official trade union was rejected on the grounds that sex workers are not workers, because they do not have employers. The position of sex workers as workers, KSWU’s central ideological claim, thus remains subject to struggle. Although KSWU activists themselves invest deep emotional commitment to the identity of the “worker,” both the legal restrictions on sex workers registering as an official union and the discomfort and social distance of other workers impose limitations on putting it into practice.

Pushing the Limits of the “Labor Union” for Sex Work

Not only is “worker” status symbolically meaningful for sex workers, but the designation is also practically meaningful: sex workers overlap with other informal workers in significant ways. Many sex workers have also done construction work and domestic work at various points or move back and forth between sex work and factory or agricultural labor. The challenges sex workers face—criminalization, harassment, poverty, lack of access to social services, violence, precarity—require hybrid organizational approaches. Unionizing requires sex workers to both appeal to the idea of the trade union for recognition and legitimacy while also re-imagining it to accommodate issues of sexuality, gender, and caste and the flexibility and diversity of working arrangements. Globally, one approach has been for sex workers to seek affiliations with umbrella labor federations, as in Argentina. KSWU has pursued a similar strategy.

KSWU’s work suggests new directions for labor organizing in India. Sex workers’ mobilization, in line with the informal workers’ movement, has focused on demanding social protections from the state rather than demanding higher wages from employers.15 Furthermore, sex worker unions must use unique and creative strategies for maintaining contact with workers who are spread out and often working in secret, rather than sharing the same factory floor—often redefining the spaces of work through strategies like a helpline. The visibility of traditional forms of activism, such as street protests, may pose risks to sex workers who are stigmatized and criminalized and operate invisibly, so KSWU must serve multiple roles, both as an internally democratic, non-judgmental space for emotional and social support and as a tool for demanding recognition and access to poverty alleviation from the state. Finally, sex workers’ organizing shows how sexuality, gender, and caste dynamics can infuse labor organizing with new energy. Despite the challenges of aligning with the labor movement, KSWU members’ positioning as workers allows them to both demand rights as citizens and redefine “work.”