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Sex worker unions are reforming their industry

Up in arms. EPA/Ian Langsdon

How best to regulate the sex industry is a frequent topic of discussion. But most of it focuses on moves by governments to criminalise people who pay for sex. France, for example, has recently joined a long list of countries, including Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Northern Ireland, in making it illegal to purchase a sexual service.

Yet this runs contrary to the views of many who work in the industry. If their voices were listened to, we might see a very different approach to regulating sex work.

In France, as with these other countries, the representatives of sex workers have campaigned against the introduction of criminalisation. They believe it endangers the safety of sex workers, as the selling of sex will continue but be driven underground. Their slogan is “nothing about us without us”. In other words, no policy should be devised or action taken concerning sex work without the full and direct participation of the workers involved and their representatives.

Forming labour unions is one of the main ways that sex workers are attempting to challenge the way the industry they work in is regulated. Sex worker activists en masse favour decriminalisation and a large number have sought to create a representative body to campaign for it.

Like any other work

The unionisation of sex workers typifies many of the sharpest challenges for groups trying to unionise. These include organising self-employed workers with no regular or fixed place of work, high levels of turnover and, effectively, zero hour contracts – all within greatly expanding labour markets due to migration. However, unlike any other workers, sex workers also face moral opprobrium from both within and outside of the labour union movement as a result of the work they do. So there is an additional hurdle to be overcome in the process of unionisation.

Yet, despite these challenges, sex worker activists have succeeded in persuading fellow workers to unionise (either through joining existing unions or creating new ones) in 30 countries including the US, UK, India and Cambodia. They have been spurred on by the realisation that sex work is work much like any other, and that sex workers need and want rights.

Sex workers have problems in common with other workers such as lack of holiday pay, fines for bogus infractions at work, being compelled to do unpaid overtime, bullying by managers and being forced to work long hours without breaks. But there are also different problems which most workers don’t have to face such as having to pay fees to work and purchasing work items from their bosses. From both, a sense of injustice and an array of grievances have developed.

Added to their discontent over these issues, sex workers also want to add a political voice to their economic one. Consequently, they have used unionisation to amplify their public position on the legal status of sex work.

No easy task

But unionisation has been no easy task. The numbers involved have been small, progress has been limited in making substantive gains, and many organisations have folded such as the Red Thread union in the Netherlands. Notable highlights have been collective bargaining over contracts for terms and conditions of work (remuneration, working hours, grievance and discipline procedures and so on), as well as individual and wider political representation.

Honduran sex workers protest for greater rights. EPA/Gustavo Amador

Formal collective bargaining has taken place in Australia, Britain, Germany and the US, while individual representation has also taken place through the sex work establishments’ grievance procedures as well as through legal action in many more countries. Political representation has involved campaigning and lobbying to reform the legal regulation of sex work. Informal collective bargaining, assisted by legal recourse, has also taken place, especially with regard to fees levied to work for exotic dancers and their campaign to be accorded employed status in the US.

After initial successes, energy levels have waned. Organisational development has stalled and many sex worker unions have folded. Along the way, there have been some almighty and bitter internal disputes among sex workers over whether managers should be members and which groups of sex workers (for example men, women or transgender) should be prioritised over others.

Yet, despite these problems, when one organisation has folded another has often emerged to take its place and carry on the battle for representation. This demonstrates the continuing demand for collective interest representation and the willingness of activists to step up to the plate to provide that representation. Sex worker unionisation is therefore very much a work in progress and a battle still being fought across the world.

My research suggests that developing an occupational form of labour unionism is the best way forward. This means instead of trying to gain bargaining rights in each individual sex work establishment, which is an arduous process, sex workers would seek to regulate their industry as a whole by controlling the standards and practices within it, as well as who has entry to it. One way to do this is through creating a sense of industry identity, at the same time as organising themselves through their union. It will be a difficult task but potentially more rewarding in the long run.

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