What follows is an outline of the Women’s Strike Assembly’s current industrial strategy for the sex industry; the establishment of a UK national campaign to demand and win the decriminalisation of sex work and the feminist education that is needed about sex, violence and workers rights.
Unionisation of Workers in the Sex Industry
Beginning in June 2018, the Women’s Strike Assembly UK is coordinating a unionisation drive of workers across the UK sex industry with the grassroots union, United Voices of the World. We will be organising with both irregular migrants and workers with secure immigration status. Because of how current laws and policies criminalise many aspects of sex work, the unionisation campaign will begin with a focus on organising strippers and dancers in clubs and pubs. By working together, standing up for each other and making our voices heard we can improve our working conditions. Unions offer workers the ability to collectively negotiate about workplace rules and conditions – with both bosses and also the local councils. Unions are the only way that we will be able to get our bosses and clients to treat us with the dignity and respect that we deserve. They are also the only way we will be able to put a stop to things like extortionate high house fees, arbitrary changes to commission structures, fines for being late or having to cancel a shift, blacklisting and sexual harassment by managers or bouncers. Even though the first phase of the unionisation campaign will focus on organising workers in clubs and pubs, all workers in the sex industry (except those who have the ability to hire and fire sex workers) are encouraged and welcome to join the union. Why? Because by beginning with the most visible and legal workers in the adult entertainment industry we will be able to gain the necessary experience, skills and strength in numbers to then move into organising workers who work in brothels, escort agencies, on the internet and in the street.
We want to unionise the sex industry because we want to build collective power. We are not interested in passing judgement on what type of work people do. We recognize that many women, men and trans people have a diverse range of experiences in the sex industry – good, bad and ugly. We respect people’s choices or circumstances about continuing to work in the sex industry or exiting the industry. The reason we want to unionise the sex industry comes directly from our experiences as workers. The union will be 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. The union provides a space for workers to negotiate with bosses, develop bargaining skills and increase our confidence to organise at work and change the industry in the interests of workers.
What has decriminalisation of sex work & changes to the SEV’s policies got to do with it?
The current laws that regulate what workers can and can’t do with our bodies and the continued efforts to criminalise our workplaces make it difficult, at times nearly impossible, for workers to organise and unionise. One of the main reasons is that we are not considered to be workers. At best we are classified as self-employed (and as such have very few labour rights) but most of the time we are treated as victims in need of saving and rescue. For the last decade, national governments and local authorities have used concerns about trafficking in the sex industry as a cover to create a hostile environment for migrants in the sex industry. Raids on premises, closure of clubs, arrests and deportations have done next to nothing to address instances of forced and coerced labour in the sex industry. Instead, bosses now have even more power and migrant workers have been forced further underground and into more dangerous and precarious sex work. It is important to remember that just like in other industries where migrants make up a large section of the workforce, when workers stand up together, refuse to be divided by ‘race’ and unionise, we are able to confront injustice and exploitation. However, because of the current criminalisation of the sex industry, unionisation will only get us so far.
At the same time as increasing our confidence and power at work (which is another way to explain what a union is), we also need to run a public campaign that demands the full decriminalisation of sex work and changes to the policies regarding sex entertainment venues. We need a union at work and we need to change national legislation that affects our work. What we want is the removal of all laws that criminalise the organising, selling or buying of sex for all sections and sectors of the industry and for any consensual sexual activity. What we don’t want are special or moral laws that zone sex work and contribute to stigmatising sex workers by singling out our work as inappropriate and make us more vulnerable to abuse by cops, immigration officials and members of the public by relegating it to peripheral areas.
The reason we need to do both at the same time is to ensure that decriminalisation is in the interest of workers and not just bosses. We need policies that will help us gain employment rights (sick pay, pensions, regulated hours) and focus on increasing our safety at work. Decriminalisation without unionisation means that workers will bear the full force of the market.
Aren’t feminists part of the problem?
The Women’s Strike is not a one-day event set to coincide with International Women’s Day each year – it’s not an activist campaign or a women’s project. In the UK and across the world we are witnessing an emerging international women’s movement that is experimenting with and struggling for a feminist future. For too long, a reactionary and conservative vision of women’s rights has dominated feminism, especially in relation to the question of sex work and sex workers’ rights. Many feminists have been more than happy to allow the police and immigration officials to do their dirty work in trying to “abolish” the sex industry. While at the same time, corporate and so-called ‘radical’ feminists have had very little to say about the changes to social security benefits, introduction of zero-hour contracts and the housing crisis – all of which have ensured a steady stream of people looking for work in the sex industry. When we talk about the red feminist horizon we are sketching out the kind of feminist future that we want and crucially, how we get there. The red feminist horizon demands that we have full and final say on the meaning of our lives, how we labour and what is done to and with our bodies.
In moving towards a red feminist horizon we continue the work of our feminist mothers and grandmothers in destabilizing ideas of womanhood. We refuse to be divided into good and bad women. We are not interested in reproducing a version of feminism that only makes some women visible, namely those who are white, middle class, cisgender and heterosexual. Nor is there anything stable, inherent or natural about being a woman. As Chandra Mohanty so forcefully argued 35 years ago, the relationship between “Woman” a cultural and ideological construction and “women” who are real material subjects of our collective histories is one of the central questions that feminism seeks to act upon. We have to confront the reactionary and patriarchal ideas of what it means to be a woman today. Like that we are ‘naturally’ caring, that we all want to be mothers, that most of the time we are asking for sex and the rest of the time we are in need of protection. At the same time, our organising must revalue care work and emotional labour, support people who have children and combat the structural and systemic forms of violence and exploitation that harm so many women. By organising as workers in the sex industry, using our creativity and courage to transform the conditions of our work and also change national legislation the Women’s Strike Assembly is making a concerted effort to intenven into the public discussion about sex, violence and power and to move us towards the red horizon.
UVW is a worker-led union, in which dancers and strippers will organise their own campaigns, with support and solidarity from the wider membership. We will lead on our own struggles not because we think that being a ‘stripper’ or a ‘sex worker’ is a fixed identity, but because those who have experienced the working conditions in the industry are best placed to know how to change it. The union provides legal protection, advice, training and education, workplace and court representation and, mostly, an organising space of collective power for workers to negotiate with bosses, develop bargaining skills and increase our confidence to organise at work and change the industry in the interests of workers.
Join the union online on www.uvw.org.uk