Stigma, Vulnerability to Abuse and Labour Market Outcomes: Cases of Sex Work and Domestic Work in India – Meeting Report

The GSRN was lucky to welcome Neha Hui from the University of Reading’s economic department for the first presentation of the spring term, on the differential earnings between sex workers and domestic workers, using the labour markets of India as a case study. Neha bought us a fresh and insightful take on a long standing debate on sex workers, by moving away from discussions of agency, victimhood and objectification, framing the conversation in economic terms as a way to shed light on some of the costs and benefits of working in the sex trade.


Neha first introduced the network to some of the literature surrounding sex work that sought to explain the substantially greater earnings that sex workers receive. Whilst some academics sought to explain the wage differential in terms of a premium that reflects the opportunity cost for foregoing marriage (Edlund and Korn, 2002), others considered it to reflect the high risks that are involved in the trade (Arunachalam and Shah, 2008). Such risks include sexually transmitted infections, with the risker the behaviour, such as unprotected sex, the higher the premium paid to the sex worker. Della Giusta et al (2008) argues that the premium paid is a form of compensation for the stigma of being associated with the trade.

The idea of stigma is something that became central to Neha’s research. She proceeded to demonstrate the complex nature of stigma by considering the different ways it has been conceptualised. In 1960 Goffman stated that it is a process of the social construction of identify, with Link and Phelan arguing that it is the co-occurrence of labelling, stereotyping, separation, status loss and discrimination.

Neha noted how stigma can attached itself for different reasons, observing the high wages paid to those who work in ‘dirty work’, particularly so when it relates to the body, such as waste disposal. For Neha, sex work, in its relation to the body, would fall within this understanding of stigma. Further, a sex worker is stigmatised due to ideas of femininity, and being considered a deviant from socially sanctioned norms regarding women’s behaviour around sexuality (Wong et al, 2011).

The difficulty for Neha’s research is that stigma as a concept cannot be measured. Thus she sought to assess the stigma explanation using a comparative method, using the trade of domestic work as a basis on which to compare the two differential earnings. To ensure that this comparison was rigorous, Neha had to confirm that these two types of workers, sex workers and domestic workers, were legitimate comparative groups.

Neha demonstrated how the two trades in India, sex work and domestic work, employ from similar groups of people. Namely women from similar socio-economic backgrounds with similar levels of education.  Because most of the women employed into these two lines of work enter into the trade at a similar age, with similar levels of education and formal training, they hold similar labour market options (Wadhawan, 2013). To further compound the similarities between the trades, many women who enter into sex work report previously provided unpaid sexual services in the context of their paid domestic labour (Durbar Mahila Samanavaya Committee, 2006; Jameela, 2009).

For Neha’s comparative study she compared brother based sex workers with ‘live out’ domestic workers, noting that there categories of workers have greater bargaining power than the street based sex worker and the ‘live in’ domestic worker. The data was collected from a primary field survey of sex workers and domestic workers from two cities in India Delhi and Kolkata. Due to the hidden and sensitive nature of the two occupational groups, Neha used the snow-ball sampling technique using the networks from the informed NGOs that worked within the areas.

Neha found from her statistical analysis that having faced violence in the past increased the likelihood of an individual becoming a sex worker. However, this did not suggest that risk, or vulnerability to abuse, were factors to attribute the wage difference to, as within the sex worker group women who have been abused do not, on average, earn significantly more than those who have not. She also found that there was a significant difference in earning between domestic work and sex worker, with a sex worker being expected to earn 130 percent more than her counterpart domestic worker. For Neha, what explained this difference of earnings was the stigma attached to the sex trade, a stigma that is not attached to the domestic work trade.

A massive GSRN thank you to Neha for presenting just a small part of her fascinating work from her successfully completed PhD in Economics. From all at the GSRN, we want to wish Neha all the best with her current post doc research at the University of Reading on economic history and post-slavery indenture worker migration from the Indian subcontinent to British colonies. We are confident that Neha will continue to generate more valuable insights from the field of economics on complex issues.


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