Precarity and the Effect of Sudden Economic Shock on the Intimate Labour Force in India

(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)

By Sutapa Majumdar, Post-Doctoral Researcher focusing on Bar Dancing

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[1] 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.

[1] ‘The traps and the lures of Kolkata’s dance bars’, Hindustan times, May 22, 2017

You can follow Sutapa Majumdar on Twitter @sutapa1924

Trafficking of labour in Global Supply Chains: Understanding the central debates

Dr Sophy K J, postdoctoral research associate

Critical engagement with contemporary discourses on extreme exploitation such as ‘modern slavery’, ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘indenture labour’ and ‘bonded labour’ throw open not only academic debate on forms of neo-servitude, but also outlines the failures of regulatory approaches on the ground which have for centuries sought to address the historical crime of slavery. The international conference on “Human Trafficking & Supply Chains: Corporate Responsibility Beyond Transparency Legislation” held at India Habitat Centre and the National Law University Delhi on 18-19th November, 2019, brought together scholars from several disciplinary fields to deliberate upon the continuum of older forms of forced labour and forms of trafficking within newer employment practices.

The Opening Session of the Conference emphasised that without challenging the causal factors of structural inequality based on caste, ethnicity, gender and class, the solutions would be non-specific, procedural and simplistic. The session deliberated upon various forms of reactions from different stake holders, the state, academia and social movements, to combat trafficking in India. There was consensus on the argument that conflating all sex work with trafficking and further criminalisation of sex workers’ livelihood makes them more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination in society. This perspective opened further deliberations on better approaches to counter human trafficking. Dr. Hila Shamir argued for a paradigm shift in anti-trafficking policy: a move away from the currently predominant human rights approach to trafficking and the adoption of a labour approach that targets the structure of labour markets prone to severely exploitative labour practices. According to her, a labour paradigm offers more effective strategies for combating trafficking by adopting five measures such as (1) preventing the criminalization and deportation of workers who report exploitation; (2) eliminating binding arrangements; (3) reducing recruitment fees and the power of middlemen; (4) guaranteeing the right to unionize; and (5) extending and enforcing the application of labour and employment laws to vulnerable workers.

Prof. Prabha Kotiswaran (principal investigator of this project), while critiquing the criminal justice approach to trafficking, articulated a critique of the labour approach to trafficking (which presumes the existence of a formal economy in the Global North) by referring to substantially different configurations of the state, market, civil society and legal system in the Global South. She argued that Global South countries tailor their labour laws to the informal economy while envisaging a robust role for the developmental state in addressing fundamental economic inequalities (by guaranteeing rural employment and workfare) that renders workers vulnerable to trafficking to begin with. Hence, the need to deviate from conventional regulatory responses, especially carceral approaches to ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ and instead implement domestic labour and social welfare laws which are themselves the result of long-term struggles for decent work and against extreme exploitation. She explained judicial activism around defining ‘forced labour’ and possibilities of taking it further to deal with forced labour and trafficking.

Further, various sessions of the conference also addressed practices of trafficking and the lack of regulatory regime in varied employment sites such as sex work, garment production, migrant domestic work and construction work. These sessions interrogated the common predicament of workers’ struggles for dignity and recognition in the domain of work, especially in ‘stigmatised labour’. The discussions around dignity, respectability and recognition challenged structural inequalities based on gender, caste, class and ethnicity. Deliberations on solutions and the way forward problematised inadequate regulatory or compliance regimes as a reason for the non-recognition of various forms of labour, especially women’s work including care work and sexual labour, and queried whether the concept of social reproduction can help recognise different forms of women’s labour and secure rights, entitlements and justice. The conference apprised how at a time of underemployment, unemployment and starvation; workers are often entrapped in unfair labour practices amounting to trafficking. Participants concluded that empowering workers by securing their rights is preferable to arrest trafficking in labour sectors, then treating workers as victims and engaging in ‘piecemeal tinkering’ through raid, rescue and rehabilitation measures.

Caste that Governs: The Dancing Girls of Mumbai’s Dance Bars

By: Dr. Sutapa Majumdar, Post-Doctoral Associate

Globalisation has created new spaces of employability for men and women and brought in a range of livelihood options for diverse groups and strata of Indian society: erotic dancing being one example. Several marginalised, excluded and artistically skillful young women have found work in spaces such as hotels, bars and clubs, mostly concentrated in urban centers. Bar dancing as work has been scorned to scale by some feminists and the moral crusaders of the times who consider such engagement as an extreme form of commodification and exploitation of already marginalised and excluded feminine bodies to satisfy the sexual urge of upper caste, neo-rich and neo-capitalist men.

We acknowledge that those who opt to dance in bars to earn a livelihood usually represent women of the lower strata of society, namely those who are Dalit/other lower-castes or from denotified tribes, who have limited opportunities to secure socially sanctioned work possibilities. Yet, as part of the ‘laws of social reproduction’ project’, we believe and acknowledge that bar dancing and similar occupations (like unpaid care work, sex work and commercial surrogacy) are forms of reproductive labour with a specific market value of their own, which ought to be considered as a form of labour and work. Further, we consider these as work because, although they remain highly unrecognised and invisible, they add to the overall economic wellbeing of the family and society, and therefore deserve dignity and respect both in the eyes of the law and mainstream society at large. Not surprisingly, there is not much study of such socially reproducible labour in India and even less is known on the laws and policies related to this field of work.

Sameena Dalwai, a researcher, writer and an academic recently released her monograph, “Bans and Bar Girls: Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bar” at the Qutub Institute in Delhi on 4th December 2019. In this monograph, Sameena attempts to highlight the interplay of gender, caste, erotic and sexualized labour, the new market economy, and new forms of legislation, that aim to be neutral in principle yet function to safeguard the moralistic culture of a patriarchal society. At the launch of the book, panelists included Pratiksha Baaxi of JNU, Anuja Agarwal of the Delhi School of Economics and Saptarshi Mandal of Jindal Global Law School. Whilst introducing the book, Ritu Menon from Women Unlimited (the books publisher) identified it as a resource which is both serious and scholarly and yet easily accessible to general readers. She congratulated Sameena for her very spontaneous and engaging ethnographic study eliciting the minutest details of the life of bar dancers, a subject that is seldom talked about.

Prof Agarwal said that it was a forceful book which tabled an important contribution in understanding how many women from the nomadic communities, lower castes, Dalit and various denotified tribes in India, became dancers in bars and how they were the ones who suffered most of the consequences of the bans. Professor Mandal too agreed with Ritu Menon in saying that the book is an excellent resource for undergraduate teaching as it is easily accessible, and further elucidated on the books important contribution to the ongoing debate on caste and sexuality, as well as the debate between upper caste and Dalit feminists on issues of sex work and bar dancing. One shortcoming of the book, he noted, was its exclusion of the voices of the women who are talked about, the Dalit sex workers as well as activists and organisations who have been working on issues of sex work in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka as to how they feel about themselves and their work. Further, he noted that he would have liked the author to problematise the concept of ‘hereditary occupation’ in a bit more in detail, the factors it entails-who uses this trope-the feminist, the bar dancers or the sex workers? Saying so, he acknowledged that the book does make an crucial intervention in highlighting that gender, caste and sexuality equation are not stagnant but that they interact in a dynamic reality where certain forms of stigmatised labour become highly valuable in the face of globalisation.

Prof. Pratiksha Baxi in her reading of the book shared how it has made an important contribution to mainstream law and governance studies by highlighting the concept of caste governance from a feminist perspective  through a deep ethnographic and legal research on the ban of dance bars in Mumbai, tracing its shifting meaning and life after the ban, which not many have engaged in. Further focusing on the discourses on moral panic and the perceived ‘ruination’ of young middle-class men, she dwelt on a complicated legal history of the ban engaging at length how it affected the women and everyone else who was directly or indirectly associated with the dance bars.

This book is a rich ensemble of the inside world of the bar dancers and discusses a range of known and unknown realities about bars and bar girls in Mumbai’s dance bars, a must read for those who are curious about the city that never sleeps.

Of Freedoms & Agency: Commercial Surrogacy and Reproductive Rights – by Sneha Banerjee

Dr. Sneha Banerjee is a research associate exploring commercial surrogacy in India

On 5-6th December 2019, I participated in the International Conference on (Non)Reproductive Freedom: Theories, Experiences and Movements at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice organised by the feminist journal – DEP. Apart from a larger focus on the conceptual and activist insights on reproductive rights and freedoms, reproductive justice and intersectionality, the conference included quite a few papers on surrogacy addressing the question of commodification, labour, contracts, state-level regulation, transnational complications and its nascent international regulation. My paper, titled, “Commercial Surrogacy & Reproductive Freedom: Reflections from Regulatory Debates in India” sought to highlight the different voices from the women’s movement in India (not yet sharply polarised) and the trajectory of regulation from quasi-legalisation to prohibition. Diverse voices in the Indian context have demanded strict regulation – feminists demanding safeguards for surrogates, especially their right to health, professional associations of infertility doctors, and lawyers to name a few important actors. Yet, there has not been a loud clamour for prohibition, especially not the variant that the Indian state has sought to introduce through the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 which bans commercial surrogacy but conditionally allows altruistic surrogacy for married infertile couples when arranged among ‘close relatives’.  My paper also included insights from my doctoral research regarding the laboring lives of women who acted as surrogates in India for whom surrogacy was one among many ‘options’ in the informal labour market. While India has emerged as one of the most prominent (erstwhile) hubs of transnational surrogacy for almost a decade and a half, and there has been a considerable body of scholarship informed by ethnographic and field-based insights, there still remains an acute need for continued emphasis on a grounded understanding of the phenomenon. It is important to recognise that the surrogacy ‘industry’ flourished in India largely through a vast network of intermediaries, who cannot simply be wished away with a ban, without proper mechanisms of effective implementation. Currently, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 stipulates steep fines and up to ten years of imprisonment for violation – provisions that are likely to lead to fewer convictions. Moreover, if addressing the exploitation of women who act as surrogates is one of the core concerns as the Bill seeks to address, then allowing only altruistic surrogacy among close relatives does not necessarily achieve that objective.

The discussions on surrogacy at the conference demonstrated that it is important to contextualise commercial surrogacy as a form of embodied labour, which evokes normative questions around ‘new’ forms of women’s labour, appropriate regulatory responses that have a rights-based approach for the commissioning parents, surrogates and children born through surrogacy at their core as well as questions on ‘çhoice’ or its limits in face of structural inequalities. The enforceability of surrogacy contracts is also far from settled — globally where many jurisdictions recognise them albeit only when non-commercial; and particularly in the Indian context where courts are yet to deliberate on such contracts in depth. While a concern about the rights of the most vulnerable in surrogacy arrangements, namely the women who act as surrogates and the children that they give birth to, remains a unifying concern for feminists globally, yet divergences are often glaring in how we seek to understand women’s agency and (re)imagine families beyond hetero-normative frames. Such divergences and contestations are also around how to understand the phenomenon and some of these were highlighted during the discussions in the conference. Firstly, is commercial gestational surrogacy yet another bastion of technological control over women’s reproductive capacities? Secondly, what are the limits of possibilities for the fulfilment of the reproductive rights of some individuals/couples through another woman (where they are often in a hierarchical relationship)? Lastly, whether transnational surrogacy can be understood as an example of women in constrained contexts negotiating and bargaining with globalized informal labour markets. Evidently, surrogacy, as a form of biological and social reproduction, is an important illustration of the relevance of continued feminist dialogue and engagement despite the contestations it entails.

I would like to acknowledge the travel grant and financial support provided by the Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH), Delhi, where I previously held a postdoctoral fellowship (2018-19), that facilitated my participation in this conference.

Has the Dial Moved on the Indian Sex Work Debate?

See Prabha Kotiswaran’s latest piece in Economic & Political Weekly here.

The Journey Begins

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Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton