Sachi Keller, known by fans as Onyx, is an Alberta-based stripper who says she’s experienced pay-docking and long shifts without breaks. As one of the few Black strippers in the province, she’s also been told to avoid wearing braids, and instead, keep her hair straight, all while club managers say “We’re not racist; we hired you.”
Earlier this year, Keller lost her employment altogether when she spoke out against her working conditions. Specifically, she repeatedly asked one of her employers to stop taking money from her paycheque for a “promo fee.”
“I went on social media and talked about it—look at these deductions—and the next day they fired me,” Keller said.
So Keller was happy to hear that Maggie’s, Canada’s oldest sex worker organization based in Toronto, has become the first of its kind to unionize in the country under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
“Having a union will organize better standards, expectations, and accountability, which is especially needed when there are problems with people you’re working with, like managers and club owners,” Keller said.
Jassie Justice, an outreach worker at Maggie’s who led union efforts, said unionizing allows staff to tangibly address racism, transphobia, low wages, and too few working hours for staff.
“It’s hard advocating for yourself as a worker of colour in an organization that historically has been very white,” they said, adding that while Maggie’s has “incredible” staff of colour, “unionizations allows us to talk about white supremacy in the context of real working conditions.”
“Even the most progressive organization can benefit from a union,” they said.
While the union only represents Maggie’s staff, Keller and other sex workers across Canada told VICE World News they hope the move sparks a nationwide trend. Ideally, sex workers say, unions make it possible for workers to collectively force employers to give them paid time off, paternity leave, and meaningful ways to address violations and abuses incurred on the job.
Pay-docking could also be tackled. When Keller first spoke out about her pay getting slashed, she tried to speak with her agent. Many strippers across Canada have to go through third-party agencies to book gigs at clubs, so they’re subject to the ways they’re treated by club management and by the agents coordinating their work. When it comes to pay, agencies take a cut, and often, clubs use pay docking as a way to penalize strippers for being late or failing to hit various targets. “It’s straight-up extortion,” one stripper previously told VICE World News.
Instead of advocating for Keller, her agent dropped all forthcoming bookings, she said. “He said, “We’re going to part ways from here.’ He didn't want to hear my story.”
The agency, Independent Artists, did not respond to VICE World News’ requests for comment.
Keller acknowledged that some sex workers don’t want to unionize, in part because they’re worried about the repercussions they might face from employers, including fewer bookings.
To make matters worse, there isn’t enough government oversight protecting sex workers, including strippers, Keller said. “If this was any other occupation—if we were working in nail salons—it would be a completely different reaction from authorities,” Keller said. “We know governments don’t like strippers, but we’re here. It’s a business; we’re workers, so we should get the same rights and privileges as others.”
Keller has since advocated for stripper rights, in part by setting up a site where performers can share their stories of being mistreated. “I love my job, but the companies make it difficult to want to do this sometimes,” one anonymous stripper wrote.
Fatphobia and ageism as well as poor travel accommodations, unstable contract work, and “huge” favouritism also plague the working conditions that many strippers live with in Canada, said Steph Sia, a stripper based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Similar problems inspired a U.K.-based sex worker union in 2019. “I think pretty much every dancer has experienced discrimination at some point. It’s the same as being a woman in any workplace!” one dancer told VICE at the time.
Following unionization in the U.K., employers started listening to workers more, and even hired staff to manage worker concerns. Around the world, including in the Netherlands and Spain, sex worker unions also support collective efforts to decriminalize the industry, which would help remove the stigma around sex work and make it safer. Right now, most sex workers don’t report labour violations and others abuses out of fear they’ll be neglected or punished by authorities.
Sia said it’s important to keep in mind that the good parts of sex work—freedom of expression, good pay, creativity—outweigh the bad, but solid labour rights would make the work even better.
“A lot of my peers want to gain benefits and fight for more consistent pay and rights… That would help create better working conditions, safety, security,” Sia said, adding that following Maggie’s union drive, “I’d hope to see a trend nationally, across the board.”
When Jassie Justice learned that other sex workers were excited about Maggie’s union efforts, they said they’re “thrilled about it.”
“I see this as a means to talk more holistically about sex work justice and understanding sex work as work, and affording the rights that should be afforded to all workers to sex workers,” Jassie Justice said.
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