We have yet to establish the ‘worker’ status’ of sex workers. So far, bosses have preferred to pay huge sums in out-of-court settlements to avoid recognising dancers’ labour rights. To change that in 2020, we are bringing a number of important cases around trade union activity and employment status to court this year. Hopefully they will be enough to shift the status quo. This fight for worker status, as opposed to forced self-employment, is of course not unique to sex work. Every Uber driver, Deliveroo courier, Taskrabbiter, and gig economy worker in the UK should recognise it.
As with any group of marginalised workers, we need to build up the confidence of workers in the sex industry so that they can speak, vote, and take industrial strike action. This means tackling the stigma associated with selling sex that makes workers vulnerable to complex forms of exploitation. We recognise that women, men, and trans people have all experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly in the sex industry. We respect the choices or circumstances that lead them to enter sex work, continue it, or to exit it. Our desire to unionise comes directly out of our own experiences as workers. The union is worker-led not because we think that being a ‘stripper’ or a ‘sex worker’ is a fixed identity, but because those who have experienced the material conditions of the industry are in the best position to know how to change it.
What has decriminalisation got to do with the union?
The current laws that regulate what we can and can’t do with our bodies and the continued efforts to criminalise our workplaces make it difficult, at times nearly impossible, for sex workers to organise and unionise. Strip clubs are legal workplaces, but the Sexual Entertainment Venue licensing laws regulating them prioritise respectability over workers’ rights and safety. Equally, independent sex work is legal in Britain. It is, however, illegal to work on the street, for more than one person to work at the same premises (e.g. workers sharing a flat), or for another person to assist a sex worker in the course of their work (e.g. manage bookings or provide door security). These laws mean that workers are exposed to violence, theft and exploitation at work, and often face criminal charges for working with others to improve their safety.
Our lack of worker status is a huge obstacle to unionisation. At best we are classified as self-employed, but most of the time we are treated as victims in need of saving or as criminals. For the last decade, national governments and local authorities have used concerns about trafficking as a cover to create a hostile environment for migrants in the sex industry. Raids, closures, arrests and deportations have done next to nothing to address instances of forced and coerced labour in the sex industry. They’ve merely forced many migrant sex workers further underground and into more dangerous and precarious sex work. As part of our organising strategy we discuss with workers that when workers refuse to be divided by immigration status and stand up together, they are better able to confront injustice and exploitation. We are well aware, however, that as long as the sex industry remains criminalised unionisation will only get us so far.Print