Bargaining power, agency and Cooperative conflict: Well-being and happiness among sex workers in India

Hui, Neha (2014). 'Bargaining power, agency and Cooperative conflict: Well-being and happiness among sex workers in India' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The purpose of this paper is to analyse what determines sex workers' agency in terms of negotiation of their bargaining power in relation to other agents in the trade. This is crucial in understanding the determinants of well-being of those in the trade. Sen's cooperative conflict model is used to understand the formation of contracts with other agents, and the resultant hierarchies that define the sex workers functionings (i.e. what she manages to do or be) both within the profession and her life outside of work. The paper uses primary data collected in Kolkata and New Delhi, India. These two Indian megacities have red light areas which house and provide the place of work for thousands of sex workers from across India and from the neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh. The difference however is that Kolkata has seen considerable successes of non-government organisations (e.g. Durbar) to organise and unionise sex workers, whilst in New Delhi this hasn't occurred to such an extent.

Complexity in relationships, especially those with a strong element of gender hierarchy, and their consequent manifestations on economic outcomes has been recognized within the economic literature (Kabeer 1994; Agarwal 1994, 1997). In particular, criticising the unitary and altruistic conceptualisation of the family, Sen (1987) identifies a class of 'cooperative conflicts' that determines the bargaining positions of actors. Within a productive unit such as a family (and in our case the brothel), productive interdependence makes it mutually beneficial to cooperate, but the distribution of the outcomes from the cooperation depends on the bargaining power of the respective parties. Sen further argues that an individual's bargaining power within the institution is linked with ambiguities regarding perceptions of interest as well as perceptions of contributions by the different actors. Furthermore, this bargaining power also depends on the fallback position of the individuals in case the cooperation fails. Each of these three aspects, i.e. 1) perceived interest, 2) perceived contribution and 3) well-being level at fallback position; reflects the 'capabilities' of the person, i.e. what the individual can or cannot achieve based on endowments (educational achievements, access to health care, mobility, possibility to avoid conditions of extreme poverty etc.). This has a distinct advantage over the neoclassical framework where the conflict resolution is only in terms of maximisation of subjective utility.

The extension of this framework to sex work is reasonable since social norms regarding sexual and emotional labour, and gender roles and stigma associated with the trade results in the formation of complex contracts with bargaining problems that are cooperative and conflicting in nature. Furthermore, whether the contract corresponds to intermediaries in a hierarchical brothel structure, or to either short term (ie single) or long term (multiple) transactions with clients without any intermediaries, perceived contribution (in the form of monetary contributions to the brothel, sexual and emotional labour or care labour), perceived interests (short term or long term, monetary or emotional) and fall-back position (access to occupational alternatives, savings and familial or other networks) both play important roles in determining terms and conditions of these contracts.

Data from the two Indian case studies indicates that while sex workers may enter into spot market transactions with some clients, they are more likely to enter into longer contracts with agents in the trade, such as madams, long term customers. While these contracts may have mutual benefits, they are inherently hierarchical in nature. This paper looks at the cooperative conflict nature of the contracts between 1) sex workers and madams and 2) sex workers and long term clients. These two contracts are important to emphasise that the market for sex worker cannot only be seen in terms of short term transactions via intermediaries who play the role of providing otherwise inaccessible information to the demanders and supplier (such as in the studies by Farmer and Horowitz 2013 and Logan and Shah 2009). The contract between the sex worker and the madam may involve an apprentice type of contract where the sex worker may see a possibility of taking over the madam's business and the contract between the sex worker and long term client may start imitating a cooperative-conflicting unit of marriage. Furthermore, the paper looks at determinants of self-reported well-being, happiness, life satisfaction and job satisfaction by women in sex work and looks at the relationship with the kind of contracts they have entered with other agents.

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