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If you ask any of the girls working down at Melbourne strip joint Spearmint Rhino how they feel about getting paid to wave their pink bits at people, most will tell you they're getting a pretty sweet deal, despite what may seem like unfair conditions.
According to one dancer at the club, most of the girls are ‘independent contractors.' "We have to pay to strip in the place," she says while on a smoke break. "Up to $80 depending on what time you turn up. If we don't show up for a shift and don't give notice, we get fined." Our new stripper friend then asked to remain anonymous because "if the managers read this, I'll get tossed."
"We don't actually get paid anything by the venue," she continued. "We only get money from the punters for private dances. The minimum is $20 but you get what you pay for. Nude dances are $30. Sometimes they give us money just to sit with them and stuff."
The conditions at Spearmint Rhino are standard for the clubs in the Melbourne CBD. They all have similar rules, including patrons not being allowed to touch dancers. Rules on dancers touching punters vary widely around the world, but in Melbourne it is verboten. Once you get outside Melbourne, you find some dancers don't have it nearly so good. The rates for private dances can be much lower, and there are often only vague restrictions stopping the girls from getting groped by drooling hillbillies. Clubs are in a very powerful position. If a performer has a grievance, there are plenty of ladies in line to take her spot. Last time I checked, there was no shortage of tits in Australia.
However, there's at least one woman who wants to see change in the industry. The national secretary of the Striptease and United Artists Union, Jeannette Schagen, set up the organisation back in 2002 in an attempt to reform and legitimise the industry.
Schagen has just sent a log of claims to all the employers in the strip sector demanding standard rates for people taking their clothes off in an "erotic fashion" for money. The rates they asked for were, on the face of it, laughably high. They want the standard rate for a three minute striptease increased to about $400-$500 instead of $20-$30. Fifteen minutes of explicit pole dancing cost around $2,500.
The media reported this as straight fact. Luckily for the punters it's not as simple as that. According to Schagen, the union is attempting to set up an award rate and standard conditions for the industry so that workers have a reference point with the clubs. There is currently no award rate for strippers, and to have one instituted the union had to start a wage dispute with the employers so they could begin negotiations in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), which has the power to make rulings. The proposed rates the union has demanded are intentionally ridiculously high in order to set up a maximum benchmark so that in future wage negotiations the union has some room to move and ask for more. It's called an "opening gambit," doye. Haven't you ever played chess at the professional level?
All this is apparently not unreasonable in the industrial relations arena. Basically, the union demands that strippers get paid a huge wad of cash, the employers tell them to fuck off, they both go to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and haggle about a fair price for services, and that becomes the industry standard. It probably won't be much different than now.
The issue of how much strippers are paid is not Schagen's main concern, as many performers take home a fuckload. It's more the manner in which they're paid. She is unhappy that strippers in clubs like Spearmint Rhino are essentially self-employed.
"You've got to look at who these performers are, as most of them are very young girls," says Schagen. "You can't expect all of them to understand how to operate a business. We just want the industry be regulated, so the employers can't just make up their own rules. It'll also give the performers a voice, whereas now if you say anything about your work conditions, you're off the roster."
Our pole-dancing source at Spearmint Rhino is pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. Dancers are being exploited, sure, but they're also expected to be pros at exploiting the men who come into the clubs. It is their duty to separate as much of a man's money from his wallet as is humanly possible. Meanwhile, the club owners sit back and rake in the cash.