THE BLOG

Sex Workers Doing It for Themselves - Through Labour Unions

07/03/2016 12:50 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Sex workers - principally exotic dancers, porn actors and prostitutes - have become one of the newer and more unusual groups of workers in recent years to seek the protection of labour unions. Unionising sex workers typifies many of the sharpest challenges for labour unionism, namely, organising self-employed workers with no regular or fixed place of work, high levels of staff turnover and, effectively, operating on 'zero hour' contracts - as well as all within greatly expanding labour markets due to migration. However, unlike any other workers, sex workers also face moral opprobrium from within and without 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 entirely ones) in the thirty countries I studied for my new book published today, Sex Worker Unionisation: global developments, challenges and possibilities. Strong examples of this were found of this phenomena in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States. In an array of other countries, further attempts were made at unionisation like Sweden, Hungary and Spain.

The spurs to unionisation have been the realisation that despite surface appearances sex work is work much like any other work and that sex workers as workers need and want rights at work. This is because 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, being forced to work long hours without breaks etc etc . And there have also been some different problems which most workers don't have to face like being forced 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 discontent over these issues is that sex workers have wanted to add a political voice to their newly found economic voice. Consequently, sex workers have used unionisation to articulate their voice in the public arena, especially over the issue of the legal reform of the position of sex work.

But unionisation has been no easy task. The numbers involved have been small, progress limited in making substantive gains and many organisations have folded. Notable highlights have been collective bargaining over contracts for terms and conditions of work (remuneration, working hours, grievance and discipline procedures and so on) and well as individual and wider political representation. Formal collective bargaining has taken place in Australia, Britain, Germany and the United States while individual representation has also taken place through internal grievance and disciplinary and external legal processes in many more countries. Political representation has involved campaigning and lobbying on reforming the legal regulation of sex work. Informal 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 United States.

After initial successes, energy levels has waned, organisational development stalled and many sex worker unions have folded or attempts by existing unions to organise sex workers have been wound up. Along the way there have been some almighty and bitter internal disputes amongst sex workers over whether managers should be members and which groups of sex workers should be prioritised over others.

Yet despite these internal and external problems when one organisation has folded another has emerged to take its place and carry on the battle for collective representation. This demonstrates the continuing demand for collective interest representation and the willingness of the activists to step up to the plate to provide that representation. Sex worker unionisation is, thus, a work in progress and a battle still being fought out across the world. My book suggests that developing an occupational form of labour unionism is the best way forward to meet the continuing challenges involved in unionisation of sex workers.

Sex Worker Unionisation: global developments, challenges and possibilities was published on 2 March 2016 by Palgrave and available at http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137320131