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Making Sex Work Labor: Sex Worker Unionization and Informal Labor Politics in India

Mon, August 18, 2:30 to 4:10pm, TBA


That sex work is work is a central symbolic and empirical claim in sex worker activism, but collective action by sex workers as workers, in trade-union-inspired organizing structures, remains under-analyzed by scholars (Sukthankar, 2012). Much sex worker organizing around the world has aligned itself, if somewhat uneasily with feminist movements, more consistently with LGBTIQ movements. There is also a tradition, both in the global North and the global South, of sex workers linking gender and sexuality politics to labor organizing. While sex workers’ interests align closely with those of other informal workers in the global South, though, they face the particularly pronounced challenges of deep social stigma, secrecy, and criminalization, linked with multiple oppressions on the basis of sexuality, gender, class and race or caste. We analyze the experience of the Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union (KSWU), a union of women, transgenders, and men in sex work, to highlight the ways in which a labor framework has been transformative for their activism and aligned them with the goals of the informal labor movement. While the union has struggled to balance a long-term commitment to decriminalization and labor solidarity with members’ demands for social welfare services in the short term, it has responded by addressing violence, supporting access to social services and rights, and providing emotional support. By forging links with both labor unions and other progressive social movements, it has also worked toward building a labor approach to sex work and a sexuality- and gender-driven approach to labor from the ground up.