Understandably, it’s pretty difficult to start a union when parts of your industry have been criminalized by the state. But that hasn’t stopped British sex workers from unionizing in order to fight for their labor rights—even with the web of contradictory laws around sex work in the UK.
In England, it’s legal to exchange sex for money, but street-based workers are often criminalized through loitering and soliciting laws. Brothels are illegal, but an overly generous legal definition of a ‘brothel’ means that sex workers can be raided and persecuted for sharing premises—even if they’re doing so for their own protection. Campaign groups and collectives like Decrim Now and SWARM are calling for full decriminalization, but in the meantime strippers—whose work is entirely legal—are unionizing in the hopes of sparking industry-wide change.
The idea for a strippers’ union came at last year’s Women’s Strike, in which sex workers played an instrumental role. “It literally just started with a conversation,” Shiri Shalmy, a representative of trade union United Voices of the World (UVW), recalls. “We soon found that strippers are often misclassified as self-employed, but in reality they’re expected to be on time, to follow a shift pattern and to be told what they can earn—or, in some cases, lose.” She’s referring to the house fees that are commonplace in strip clubs. Dancers can also be fined for not showing up to shifts, and Shalmy says anecdotally that she knows of dancers who have been fired for trying to unionize.
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Shalmy herself is not a dancer; she supports the strippers union’ as part of her role at UVW. “Most sex workers are truly independent, but from a trade union perspective it makes sense to start with workers who can organise inside an actual workplace,” she explains. “We’re entirely led by members; we don’t tell them what to do and we don’t assume we know the industry better than they do. What we do is provide the legal support and the organizing experience.”
Louise, a dancer and member of the union, tells Broadly: “I think pretty much every dancer has experienced discrimination at some point. It’s the same as being a woman in any workplace!” She lists a number of examples: clubs turning away dancers of color because they “already have enough,” a lack of support for dancers dealing with personal issues, and casual repeated body-shaming from both managers and clients. (Louise asked to use her stripper name as she is not out to her friends and family.)
It’s worth noting that these problems aren’t unique to strip clubs—the English Collective of Prostitutes has authored an extensive research report proving that jobs commonly thought of as women’s work tends to be highly exploitative—but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying to fix them.
That’s where unions come in. “What’s beautiful about organizing is that we want better conditions for all of our fellow dancers,” Louise explains. She describes an “informal sisterhood” fighting collectively for their rights, a battle which has already yielded some victories. Better still, a handful of strip clubs seem to be actively listening: They’re consulting with workers and hiring staff to manage their concerns.
In Scotland, a recent vote to develop a version of the so-called Nordic model—a widely-criticized framework that criminalizes clients but not sex workers—has led to sex workers unionizing with the support of trade union GMB Scotland. Organizer Rhea Wolfson explains that the new legislation was the main catalyst: “Sex workers joined to organize fellow workers to fight against laws which put their safety at risk. Our aim is to show that sex work is work, and to fight for a legislative framework which gives those workers access to the same rights we all rely on.”
Sex worker Megara Furie also played a key role in fighting for unionization. “If you criminalize clients, it’s not going to end demand,” she outlined in an interview with the Evening Times . “All it does is remove any safeguards we’ve got.” She shares the sentiment that decriminalization is the best way to protect workers—it’s been proven to be highly effective in New Zealand—and as a result the union welcomes self-employed sex workers in its fight for legislative change. It’s an unconventional but pragmatic approach to fighting laws that isolate sex workers.
A grievance shared by both unions is that sex workers of all varieties are often told they’re self-employed when they legally aren’t considered as such. “It’s a workforce that doesn’t consider itself a workforce,” explains Shalmy, who cites Uber and Deliveroo drivers as similar examples. “That’s no coincidence. It’s a deliberate political move to deprive workers of their rights. It’s part of a wider neoliberal move to destroy our communities.”
Similar sex worker unions are cropping up across the world. OTRAS is a particularly high-profile example. The Spanish union initially had its registration approved by the government, but swift political backlash led to the decision being revoked on the basis that prostitution doesn’t legally qualify as work (OTRAS is appealing the decision). Dutch sex workers’ union PROUD is currently organizing to protest a recent ban of Red Light District tours. Outside of Europe, countries like Argentina have extensive histories of sex worker unionization. The same can’t be said of North America; the most up-to-date research suggests that numerous attempts to achieve trade union recognition for sex workers have largely failed, although vital NGOs like SWOP (Sex Workers’ Outreach Project) continue to fight for justice and the wider safety of workers.
But trade unions in the UK have a specific history. They’ve struggled to thrive since being ravaged by union-hating Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, and smaller bodies have been swallowed up by larger, more powerful entities. “They were deliberately destroyed,” laments Shalmy, “so as bigger unions essentially became service unions, the political rhetoric became ‘sit down with bosses and talk to them.’”
The general consensus among unions is that this approach no longer works. A gradual shift towards zero-hour contracts have made workplace rights the exception as opposed to the rule; as a result, unions are becoming more vocal and more demanding. “The new trade unions are successful, and they’re growing rapidly,” Shalmy continues, telling me that UVW gained 124 members in the last month alone. “We’ve injected a new kind of politics into trade unions. It’s not about asking for small reforms and tiny improvements. It’s about saying: ‘We have been robbed and cheated, not just out of our wages, but our of our collective bargaining power.’ So we don’t ask. We demand.”