Devjyot Ghoshal, 10 July 2009
Kolkata: The economic slowdown has affected nearly every profession, and the world’s oldest is no exception. Thousands of commercial sex workers in Sonagachi have been singed. A contracting clientele, coupled with spiralling real-estate prices in the area, has driven them to reduce rates and spend more time on the streets.
The worst affected are the approximately 1000 Category A workers, who charge minimum of Rs 1,500 per hour. Restricted from going on to the streets to lure customers and completely dependent on pimps to get business, these workers are slashing their rates.
“Till a few years back, we got five customers a day. Now, it is rare to get three. As a result, Category A girls, who charged up to Rs 8,000 per hour earlier, now hardly ask for more than Rs 4,000,” said Rekha, herself a Category A worker.
For Sonagachhi’s elite, the paucity of patrons is especially difficult to contend with, as most either have to pay a flat 50% to their mistresses or shell out a substantial amount for renting a room.
With profits plunging, those under mistresses are increasingly moving out of that system, despite room rents having doubled in five years. High-end rooms in Sonagachi can now cost anything between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per month.
“Since Category A girls can’t leave the brothels to get customers and have to give half of whatever they earn to the mistresses, many are moving into Category B, where they pay a fixed amount,” Rekha explained.
While the services of about 2,000 Category B women in Sonagachi start at Rs 500 per hour, a customer has to pay 25% of the entire charge to the pimp separately. Additionally, the sex worker has to pay the landlord a commission per client on top of a pre-negotiated sum for booking a room.
Starved of clients and facing incremental hikes in the prices of contract rooms, Category B workers are being forced to charge less and work longer hours.
“Earlier, few Category B girls used to stand on the streets before 4 pm. But now, you can find us standing from as early as 10 am. We are having to work much harder,” said Shanta, another worker. Some Category B girls are also charging less to build long-term relationships with customers. “We have to depend on our existing customers to come more often. Giving a discount of Rs 100 is hardly uncommon. It hasn’t been this bad since I started over a decade ago,” she adds.
In recent years, the steady movement of women into the area from the districts and elsewhere has resulted in a space crunch. Consequently, landlords are being able to hike prices at will, while the women must either conform or stop working.
“Though new girls keep coming here, the space available is limited. Under the contract system, one room can be used by up to three workers. Still, the rents are constantly increasing,” says Kohinoor. “And if the landlord can’t hike the rent, then we are charged for other facilities. Keeping a television costs Rs 700 a month and a mobile phone charger Rs 500,” she added.
There is little optimism lost, however. “As long as there are men in this city, there will be business for women here. After all, this is Sonagachhi,” declared a sex worker.