(This piece was originally published on the Solidarity and Care platform, supported and produced by the Sociological Review, to document the various and diverse experiences and caring strategies of groups around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and can be found here)
At a time when India’s GDP growth is abysmally low, nothing else could have been worse than a sudden economic shock brought in by an unknown virus resulting in unprecedented human suffering which will unfortunately take a long time to heal. While relatively better off classes can bounce back to normalcy, it will be a difficult task for the enormous labyrinth of informal labourers that account for over ninety per cent of the country’s workforce which include a large number of marginalized workers engaged in precarious work such as ‘sex work’ and ‘bar dancing’.
In a society such as ours, where inequality is normalized on the basis of gender, class and caste and where women’s work is thought to be an extension of their reproductive duties— unrecognized, invisible and undervalued, women performing intimate labour such as sex work or for that matter, erotic dancing bear the double brunt of regulatory bans and sudden economic shock that alters their very existence.
On August 15, 2005, the thriving bar dancing community of Mumbai lost its livelihood overnight to a Government imposed regulatory ban in the name of protecting normative ideas of sexual purity and chastity and to “prevent immoral activities, trafficking of women and to ensure the safety of women in general.” Close to 75,000 women and girls working as bar dancers and 1,50,00 people directly or indirectly associated with bar dancing business in Mumbai were left jobless due to the ban. The impact was daunting. In the absence of regular income and out of fear of being harassed by the police and landlords, many chose to commit suicide, or disappeared due to the fear of being recognized. Many went back to their village and others joined sex work and became part of transnational escort services and strip clubs while the rest engaged in precarious work marked by uncertainty, abuse and violence. The ban thus was single handedly responsible for not only taking away a very steady income from these women, who anyway had limited employment opportunities but also exposed them to precarity and unprecedented risk.
The push down-pop up effect of such sudden economic shock resulted in mushrooming of innumerable dance bars, beers bars across the nation, mostly hidden, thus exposing the bar dancers to increased risk of violence and trafficking, pointing to the fact that such events do not necessarily eliminate a form of labour, although it might for some time change the nature and pace of work. For example, when the bars were shut overnight in Mumbai, Kolkata became the main hub of bar dancing. But here since bar dancing was very hidden and being done more in the form of a family hotel and restaurant business, private parties, pole dance, cabaret, nude/strip dance, the women who were initially working in a protected environment in Mumbai were exposed to several threats, including forced prostitution. In the absence of any collective, or union and NGOs, or women’s group helping them, they remained at the mercy of agents, hotel owners and clients, and thus exposed to irregular and lesser income coupled with a high risk of violence.
While it took fifteen years for the bar dancers to come back to business, women performing sexual labour have more recently been subject to two very sudden economic shocks- demonetization and the COVID-19 pandemic. I discuss here the immediate and the long-term ramifications of these financial emergencies faced by women with scarce livelihood opportunities.
Demonetization and its impact on Sex Workers
While my insight is based on specific experiences of sex workers in Pune, demonetization (introduced on 9 November 2016 with no warning) affected sex workers throughout the nation. They were unprepared to deal with the sudden redundancy of old notes, which immediately impacted upon their day-to-day business, given their reliance on cash transactions. Both occupational and personal finances were strained due to limited access to mainstream financial systems. Sex workers struggled to access valid money and rescue their small-scale savings of invalidated notes, mostly kept with money lenders in the absence of a bank account.
Demonetization clearly showed that sex workers were excluded from the banking system. Hence, they lost a major portion of their earnings overnight. Almost four years down the line, the situation remains the same. The majority of sex workers across the nation do not have a bank account nor do they have ration cards, health cards, birth certificates for their children, or documents proving residence, all of which have denied them access to government schemes and programs.
With lower denomination notes like 50, 100,200 suddenly at a premium, the bargaining spread widened and led to a contraction in the volume of business. In some cases, the women had to opt out of business or were compelled to operate at a price determined not by the bargain but by the availability of money. Younger sex workers, who had a better chance of attracting customers even during demonetization could manage the cash flows unlike middle-aged and older sex workers. In the absence of clients and with scanty savings, the women had to sell their jewelry at a cheaper rate for everyday expenses.
While the elimination of “illegal” money was one of the professed intentions behind demonetization, informal markets became sites for the parking of cash as well as its generation. Within various red-light areas, a parallel clandestine market for cash emerged, where old notes could be exchanged at a steep commission of twenty to twenty five per cent leading to gross devaluation of savings for sex workers and a huge income for those facilitating the exchange, given the latter’s access to the banking system and new currency. Thus, multiple informal players, mushrooming at this time used demonetization to make money at the expense of the workers.
Demonetization disrupted the ritual of soliciting. A sudden disappearance of old currency notes led to the sudden disappearance of clients. No technique was good enough to tempt a potential customer. Unlike other businesses, sex workers could not extend credit lines to customers as this would mean sex for free which they couldn’t afford at this time even with their fixed clients.
Given the lack of regular business, sex workers were compelled to scout for money-generating alternatives-often taking recourse to illegal means. Ironically, access to the formal banking system was one such channel. For the few sex workers who had a bank account, this became the means to generate income. Older and middle-aged sex workers charged a small commission to stand in place for other sex workers (who were still getting their regular customers) in the bank queues to both deposit and withdraw cash. As a demonstration of the creative resilience so commonly found in informal labour markets, a host of such survival strategies were invented, though short-lived.
Invisible and Unaccounted – Sex Workers and Bar Dancers Rise to the demands of Global Pandemic
Once again these women are at the crossroads. Though the pandemic has affected every worker in the country, it has been devastating for sex workers and bar dancers. While not much is known about the plight of bar dancers in the country, sex workers are finding it difficult to survive with no hope of revival of business in the near future. In addition, the lack of basic documents has deprived them of access to the public distribution system and all other subsidies and financial support announced by the Government at this time of crisis.
With almost no help coming from the government, sex workers across the nation have become frontline workers in their own right and have raised funds through various means to support their community- by distributing dry rations and other essentials, arranging regular supplies of medicines, running community kitchens for those unable to cook, mobilizing funds to be transferred to families in need, providing shelter to the homeless and providing emotional support in a time of distress. For instance, the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), sex workers are reaching out to its community members in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu. In places like Madurai and Kolkata, sex workers are mobilizing the community, providing customized information to its members and negotiating with Social Welfare and Child Welfare Departments to mobilize relief. Additionally these women are volunteering to educate people about hygiene, hand washing, and how to remain safe in this time of crisis.
It’s heartening to see that when society has denied these women their basic human dignity and when their very survival in this new world is uncertain, they are not giving up and are finding ways to reach out to as many as they can to offer support. The sudden economic shock as we have seen leaves a lasting impact on the lives of this sexualized labour force and not all can revive their occupation in the future. It is hard hitting this time, unlike demonetization where the women in sexualized labour could still continue working, with COVID-19 everyone including the customers are the victims of this sudden economic shock and it is only equitable access to welfare schemes that can help them survive with some dignity. Hence it is high time that the Government recognizes the existence of this marginalized workforce and provide a safety net for them to tide over such difficult times, as they are resilient and are here to stay.
 ‘The traps and the lures of Kolkata’s dance bars’, Hindustan times, May 22, 2017