The Karnataka Sex Workers Union is a trade union of women, men and transgender sexworkers, who live in the state of Karnataka, India.The Union seeks to be registered as a trade union in India.
We advocate for the rights of all sex workers. Currently sexworkers work under extremely exploitative and stigmatised conditions as they are abused by the police, goondas, house-owners, neighbours, lodge owners, brothel owners, agents (un-popularly called pimps!), government officials and even strangers who see us at work. Within the system, we are systematically denied basic entitlements such as ration card, admission to schools, etc. Our children also face discrimination in schools, colleges and hostels. This is primarily due to lack of social acceptance and criminalisation of many aspects of sec work through the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.
We organise all persons who are working or have worked as sex workers in Karnataka. We strive to secure for them fair treatment and humane working conditions that will promote their living conditions and well-being. And we do this only through democratic, legitimate and constitutional methods. We plan to take care of our members through sickness, unemployment, old age, accident, and death.
Our members currently are primarily from Bengaluru Rural, Hassan, Yadgir and Bidar districts; but we are expanding quickly to the other districts.
We help sex workers avail of legal, educational, social, cultural, economic rights and privileges.
Sex workers may work in different situations – brothels, streets, their own homes, dhabas on highways, lodges. But our lives have similarities that overrule the contrasts. We are all “illegal” in the eyes of the Police. We are all vulnerable. This is only because our work is not recognised. If sex work was recognised as work with full labour rights, we would not be as vulnerable. We are committed to fight against the criminalisation of sexwork through the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.
We are affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), a national federation of independent trade unions in India. We are also a part of National Network of Sex Workers and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW).
We believe that we are workers involved in legitimate work, work that a large section of our society disapproves on moralistic grounds. KSWU was formed to demand our human, civil and labour rights to live and work with dignity and safety.
- an end to the stigma, discrimination and violence that we are forced to confront on a daily basis from the law enforcement, hospitals, schools, and other service providers
- full access to all welfare measures, services (like health, education, etc) and other entitlements (election ID cards, ration card, etc.)
- legal protection in cases of harassment, violence, threats, thefts, etc.
We are committed to
- Organise sex workers to secure fair treatment and humane conditions of work and life;
- Advocate for the rights of sexworkers, and assist in the resolution of disputes of sexworkers in relation to their work;
- Organise and render relief to sexworkers during sickness, unemployment, old age, accident and death to the extent possible;
- Enable access to legal assistance for sexworkers in respect of all matters arising out of their work and to help secure all their rights and facilities available under various statutes;
- Assist sexworkers and their dependents with all facilities for educational, cultural, social, political and economic development;
- Cooperate with the efforts of the government, local bodies, and public institutions for the improvement of the lives of sexworkers.
- Build solidarity and support struggles of all worker organisations and other democratic people’s organisations.
President: Nisha Gulur
Vice Presidents: Chikkathayamma, Manohar Elavarthi
General Secretary: Bharati
Vice President: Dilfaraz
General Secretary: Nageena
Treasurer: Veena S
Vice President: Dilfaraz
General Secretary: Tejashwini
Treasurer: Veena S
Vice President: Veena S
General Secretary: Savitha S
Joint Secretary: Usha. P
2007, 2008, 2009
President: Chikka Tayamma
General Secretary: Geetha
Treasurer: Veena S
Well, sex work is among the world’s oldest professions, right? And frankly, though we may be in the 21st century, it is not showing any signs of going away. But our society’s treatment of sex workers is appalling. They have no rights, no privileges, and definitely, no entitlements. We provide sexual services, hence we are workers in service industry/sector. Decent working conditions, definite earnings, financial security for old age, sickness, and other emergencies, and freedom from violence – is that too much to ask for?
Why not an NGO?
An NGO is a service-provider, a caretaker of the underprivileged, generally governed by others who are concerned about the marginalised. We are a people’s organisation governed fully by us. We also want our work to be recognised as work. Trade Union has proved to be the best form of organising for workers across the world. Hence a trade union.
How are we different from Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) which provide HIV services?
Most sex worker CBOs are formed for the primary purpose of receiving funds from the government and other funding agencies to implement HIV/AIDS services. We are a trade union of sex workers, concerned about working conditions and all the concerns of sex workers. When Karnataka Sex Workers Union was formed, the notion of sex as work was introduced into the mainstream labour and industrial workers sectors. While we have always called ourselves businessmen or businesswomen, others have seen us as victims. The union is one way of asserting our right to choose the work we do, and the right to work on our own terms. We also take up issues such as police violence, exploitation, and human rights abuses against our union members. We also intervene in areas of policy and programmes, including the exploitation of sex workers in various government and NGO projects and programmes. Some of the services provided by us are similar to those of HIV-service providing CBOs.
Why do you want sex work regulated? Why not just decriminalise it?
Regulation involves acceptance that this is a legitimate form of work. Merely decriminalising it will still leave it unregulated and that means it leaves us at the mercy of brokers and others. But regulation would make us eligible to demand decent working conditions, pensions, health insurance, child care and other benefits. As a trade union, we will also have a say in deciding what kind of governance (regulation) is appropriate for us.
What do you think about trafficking and forced labour?
Some of our members have suffered on account of being forced into sexual labour and being trafficked persons. These are inhuman, criminal practices that benefit the traffickers and enslave human beings. Forced labour, whether in factories, farms, or brothels, should be made illegal with severe penalties to the “traffickers”. Until slavery is abolished in all its forms, it is impossible to assure basic freedoms and rights to all human beings.
Why we enter sex work?
Our members come from a range of backgrounds and the reasons for entering sex work vary enormously.
- Some of us faced economic pressures, such as sick children or starving family. Sexwork gave us a better income compared with other low-skilled jobs.
- Some of us have had abusive families and spouses and have had to fend for ourselves.
- Some of us chose this as it offers us some advantages over all the other options open to us.
- Some of us were unable to get a job due to our sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
- Some of us have been traditionally involved in sex work, such as devadasis.
- Some of us were trafficked into sexwork, and later decided to continue in sex industry.
Why do we continue in sex work?
A variety of reasons, some of which include:
- Better wages: What is the likelihood that an uneducated, woman with limited job skills will find a job that allows her to support her family? In such cases, sexwork is sometimes the only option to earn enough to support our children’s education, and provide health care for our aged parents.
- We get to choose our work timings.
- We get paid immediately after providing service.
- We can decide to work more or less time based on our needs.
Why does my job define me?
We are also sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. We sometimes hold day jobs in addition to this work due to economic pressures. We live, laugh, breathe, eat and drink like all of you, have different interests and personalities but we still get defined by only one aspect of our lives – our work. Do you see a banker at home and call him/her a banker? No, you say this is my father/mother/neighbour. So why are we always sex workers?
Why can’t sex workers be rehabilitated?
We dislike the word rehabilitation. But we do need training in new skills and placements in new jobs to expand our livelihood options. We need training in financial management, and mentoring and support. But only some of us are looking for external exit plans, many of us have our own plans, and some of us just prefer this job. So ask us, do not decide for us, and if we choose this industry, respect our choice.
Why can’t we rescue sex workers?
Of course, you can! Thousands of sex workers are rescued each year. Rescuing sex workers is a billion dollar industry, and a lot of NGOs live off rescue programmes in the world. The billions of dollars would be better spent in protecting the rights of sex workers! At best, rescue operations work for trafficked and forced labour cases; at worst, they stigmatise us and target us. Many of us are here due to our economic, social and sexuality-based pressures. Can you rescue us from those pressures? So stop rescuing us, and accept us for who we are and what we do.
Do raids help anyone at all?
Yes, raids do help. They help the media raise TRPs. They help police officers raise their profile. They help NGOs raise funds. They do not help sexworkers who are in the profession by choice. They do not help trafficked people who have been forced into the profession. The entire raid and rescue approach violates our basic human rights. If you want to conduct a raid, by all means, do so. It is quite exciting to see the lights and hear the sirens. But first ask us if we want to be rescued. Do not force us to leave the brothels for the rehabilitation centres. Do not jail us in the name of rehabilitatation.
So how should we deal with trafficked persons in the sex industry?
The best way to prevent trafficking in the sex industry is by trusting and working with sex workers. We are opposed to all forms of forced labor – in the sex industry and elsewhere. Decriminalising sexwork and building capacity of sex workers in prevention of trafficking is the best way to achieve this goal. ‘Raid and Rescue’ operations are not the best way to deal with trafficking – it leads to violation of human rights of trafficked persons and sex workers. If educated and empowered, sex workers can prevent trafficking and help trafficked persons escape in a manner that respects their human rights. Such a method would also be sustainable in the long run. Whereas a raid only sends perpetrators underground for a while and makes the lives of trafficked persons more difficult, such an approach empowers sex workers in regulating the industry themselves.
Why decriminalize it?
For many of us, sex work is a means of livelihood and offers us a better deal as compared with being unskilled labour in another exploitative industry. As independent decriminalized sex workers, we could get to keep most of our earnings, could be free to educate our children, could refuse to work, could retire when we want to and live life on our terms. The main problems we face are stigma from society and harassment by law enforcement agencies and anti-social elements alike. While combating the stigma is a long and arduous process, the harassment is clearly due to the illegal nature of the industry. Decriminalising sex work will remove the excuse that law enforcement agencies currently have to arrest us and demand a share of our income. At the same time, if prostitution is decriminalized, anti-social elements would lose a hook they use to trap and harass us.
Why regulate it?
Theoretically, unregulated industries offer no protection or support for workers. In practice, exploitation is common even regulated industries. We appreciate (more than anyone else) why it is essential to have some checks and balances in a highly exploitative industry like sex work. For one, it could ensure that vulnerable people are not trafficked and coerced into the trade. However, practically speaking, any regulation would only leave us open to harassment at the hands of the regulating agencies and other law enforcement agencies.
How about self-regulation?
Self-regulation is a possibility though we are hardly a well-organised group as of now. We could organize ourselves in terms of geographical area and ensure that within our beats, child sex work is prevented. We could also ensure that health and safety measures are in place for all our colleagues. Such measures have worked in several places, including our very own DMSC Sonagchi.