Unionisation of sex workers in India

By Tarunya Shankar

Editor’s note:

India recently decriminalized prostitution, making the profession legal but retaining brothel ownership as illegal. This afforded protection to women from abuse, social stigma and the paper examines a rising need for unionization of the industry, allowing them a forum in which to voice their grievances. It is the foremost method in which to protect workers from the myriad of obstacles that plague their existence. The union brings to light the fact that the workers are not merely vulnerable to abuse from clients and spectators but also incarceration. Though the sex industry does not constitute an industry as per the standards of the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947, the workers of the industry are still workers, and cannot be denied protection absolutely.


Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world and yet is still not considered a true profession. In India alone, there are over 15 million women forced into the sex industry and with the numbers increasing, with over 100,000 women per state now working in the industry,[1] it stands to reason that if the workers in the sex industry were to be treated and regulated in the same manner as those working in more conventional establishments, the industry would be more efficient and the workers sufficiently protected.

Currently in India, prostitution has been decriminalized, i.e, it has limited legality, as prostitution itself is legal but brothel ownership and living off the income of a woman being sold for sexual purposes are illegal.[2] Women working in this industry are incredibly vulnerable to violence, physical and mental abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty.[3] They require protection from such abuse and the social stigma of their profession, and this protection could best be provided by the unionization of the industry, allowing them a forum in which to voice their grievances and be regulated in such a way that they cannot be mistreated or defrauded.[4]

Prostitution as an industry

A question thus arises as to whether or not prostitution is an industry according to law, with such a definition as will allow the people, men and women alike, working in the business to be reap the benefits provided by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. An industry, under the act, consists of systematic activities that occur in an organized manner between and employer and workmen.[5] The lack of regulation of prostitution alone omits it from the purview of the act, as there is no employer for there to be an employer-employee relationship, and there can legally exist no system by which the profession is regulated as the law stands now. It is simply an extremely large number of persons being sexually exploited, or voluntarily selling their bodies as a product. So, for the purpose of this paper, the term sex “industry” shall be used with reference to the profession of prostitution, but it is not an industry under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

However, in many countries, prostitutes have formed unions to efficiently and effectively represent their rights. A century after the formation of the first labour union in Australia, sex workers of the country registered the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union under the Australian Council of Trade Unions.[6] At the European Trade Union Confederation Congress in 2007, a debate took over the meeting, as it was finally question as to why unions, that purport to protect the weak, and vulnerable labourers of society are visibly promoting exclusivity.[7] Japan, after sever abuse and defiance of their Anti-Prostitution legislations, is working tirelessly to bring prostitution out from the darkness and into the light, suggesting that the formation of unions would better protect the men and women in the industry than denying their existence would, as the business would simply thrive underground.[8] Many arguments against the unionization of sex workers is that it will strengthen the “employers”, i.e, pimps and traffickers, as much as it will strengthen the workers themselves.[9]

However, a differentiation has to be made between victims of sexual exploitation and consensual and voluntary sex work done by persons competent to perform such acts voluntarily.[10] In fact, the Supreme Court of India observed the necessity for both groups of persons to be recognised in order for either to be effectively protected. In Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal, the Supreme Court recommended the carrying out of surveys throughout the country, to determine the number of workers in the sex industry that wanted to leave the industry and were forced into it by a myriad of circumstances and those who consciously entered the business and have an intention to continue in the industry.[11] Both groups require representation, the former requiring the help of social workers and rehabilitation centres and the latter requiring the representation of trade unions.

In Ibiza, Spain’s first union for prostitutes, called Sealeer Cooperative, was formed a few weeks ago, helping the women who are cheated out of their due pay by clients as well as those who are physically abused.[12] In Australia, the decriminalization and unionization of sex work led to the profession being labelled as health-assured, as recognition of the profession and the dangers and risks that come with it in a public forum made it possible for precautionary measures to be taken to prevent venereal diseases and HIV/AIDS by the use of condoms and other protective appliances.[13] Further, the unionization of the industry made it possible to protect not just adult workers, but the workers under the age of 18, by extracting them from the industry and rehabilitating them.[14]


The need for unionization of the industry in India essentially arises out of three main necessities required by the men and women that carry out the trade of sex work. They are :

  • Protection for the workers against physical, mental and financial abuse at the hands of their clients.

  • Measures by which the healthcare problems of these workers, vis-à-vis HIV/AIDS, Chancroid, venereal disease, etc., can be reduced, prevented or treated.

  • A shift in the societal perception of prostitutes, with the help of the media, the legislative and judicial bodies in power, human rights activists, etc., so as to remove the stigma and humiliation that these men and women face on a daily basis.

Australia, despite being a country that similar to India, has merely decriminalized the sex trade, cannot be used as a completely accurate comparative study as the Sex Trade Unions in Australia do not focus on the stigma of prostitution, merely on the first two issues. But the stigma of prostitution in India has led to the denial of voter’s identification, ration cards and even admission into educational institutions, for the people openly and voluntarily working in the industry.[15]

Nonetheless it must be noted that the unionization of sex workers, as seen by the example of various countries around the world, in which prostitution is either legal or decriminalized, has proven itself to be a boon and undoubtedly a necessity. It is the foremost method in which to protect workers from the myriad of obstacles that plague their existence. India currently has a number of prostitution unions, the largest being the National Network of Sex Workers, India, that represents the rights and views of sex workers all across the country, more specifically though, it attempts to create awareness among the public that not all women in the sex industry are victims of human trafficking, and many carry out the profession voluntarily.[16] Another union, affiliated with the New Trade Union Initiative of India is the Karnataka Sex workers Union, which fights loudly against the stigma attached to the profession, a stigma based on the false belief that all sex workers are victims.[17] The union brings to light the fact that the workers are not merely vulnerable to abuse from clients and spectators but also incarceration.[18] Sex workers perform a function similar to that of any labourer, whereby they execute an activity that participates in the creation of a final product which is sold to the public at large for a profit. Though the sex industry does not constitute an industry as per the standards of the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947, the workers of the industry are still workers, and even if they are not protected by the Act, they cannot be denied protection absolutely. Even countries in which prostitution has been legalized, continue to deny the sex workers of their respective country full industrial and civil rights. Unions are a necessity, to provide these workers their due respect, and grant them the rights that all workers are entitled to.

Edited by Neerja Gurnani

[1] Azad India Fndn., ‘Prostitution In India’ (www.azadindia.org 2010) <http://www.azadindia.org/social-issues/prostitution-in-india.html> accessed 25 February 2014

[2] The Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956 – Sections 3 and 4.

[3] E Rehn, E Johnson Sirleaf, ‘Women, War and Peace, The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-building’ [2002] WWP 1, 33

[4] Professor Gregor Gall, Research Professor of Industrial Relations, Centre for Research in Employment

Studies, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, England AL10 9AB, ‘Sex Worker Collective Organisation: Between Advocacy Group and Labour Union?

[5] The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 – Section 2(j).

[6] Jemima Walsh, ‘The Worlds First Prostitutes Union’ (http://www.walnet.org 1996) <http://www.walnet.org/csis/news/world_96/mclaire-9601.html> accessed 28 February 2014

[7] Karin Persson-Strömbäck, ‘European Trade Unions, Sex Workers and Organizing Rights’ (http://nppr.se 2010) <http://nppr.se/2010/11/15/european-trade-unions-sex-workers-and-organizing-rights/> accessed 28 February 2014

[8] Akira Morishima, ‘Comparative Studies On Sex Workers In Japan, Australia and New Zealand: The Way To Unionisation of Sex Workers’ [2008] Otemon Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 34, page 55, 57.

[9] National Network Of Sex Workers, ‘Statement of NNSW, India’ (http://www.nswp.org 2013) <http://www.nswp.org/sites/nswp.org/files/Statement-national-network-of-sex-workers-India.pdf> accessed 1 March 2014

[10] Ibid.

[11] Budhadev Karmaskar Vs. State of West Bengal, ILC-2011-SC-CRL-Feb-14

[12] Jessica Morris, ‘Spain’s First Prostitute Union Formed in Ibiza’ (http://www.cnbc.com 2014) <http://www.cnbc.com/id/101348749> accessed 1 March 2014

[13] Supra note 8, page 60.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Correspondent, Asia Sentinel, ‘Fighting for the Rights of Sex Workers’ (http://www.asiasentinel.com 2013) <http://www.asiasentinel.com/society/fighting-for-the-rights-of-sex-workers/> accessed 1 March 2014

[16] Supra note 9.

[17] Supra not 15.

[18] Ibid.

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