Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Unionisation + Decriminalisation + Feminist Education = The Red Feminist Horizon

Sex workers in the UK are gearing up for a fight to take back their rights. Who will join them?

Ava Caradonna
17 February 2020, 8.00am
moonjazz/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc)

Women have always worked. It is just that, most of the time, we don’t get paid for the work we do. Women have also always been central to the trade union movement. It is just that our involvement is routinely dismissed, exceptionalised and romanticised. These two facts are very much connected.

Beginning from our experiences of organising with and as sex workers, in the summer of 2018 the Women's Strike Assembly, a national coalition of feminist groups and projects, set about developing a unionisation campaign for workers in the sex industry. We complemented this industrial strategy with support for Decrim Now, a United Kingdom-wide campaign for the full decriminalisation of sex work. In the post #metoo era it is painfully obvious that gendered violence is at the heart of women’s labour exploitation. With the development of both an industrial and a political strategy, sex workers are now leading important discussions about sex, violence, and workers rights.

Just like an orgy, it only works if there are lots of us

In June 2018, we began a unionisation drive across the UK sex industry that sought to recruit sex workers regardless of their immigration status. Current laws and policies criminalise many aspects of sex work, so we started with strippers and dancers in clubs and pubs. By working together, standing up for each other, and making our voices heard we have begun to transform the sex industry from the bottom up.

In just over a year, the trade union group United Sex Workers has grown to well over 100 paid up members. We have already won £15,000 in compensation for sexual harassment for a member in Cardiff, and £14,000 in holiday pay for two dancers in London. Fighting back and winning compensation at work for sex workers in the UK was unimaginable two years ago. This is a very basic union fight about being considered workers, about union recognition, and about fighting club by club.

As with any group of marginalised workers, we need to build up the confidence of workers in the sex industry so that they can speak, vote, and take industrial strike action.

We have yet to establish the ‘worker’ status’ of sex workers. So far, bosses have preferred to pay huge sums in out-of-court settlements to avoid recognising dancers' labour rights. To change that in 2020, we are bringing a number of important cases around trade union activity and employment status to court this year. Hopefully they will be enough to shift the status quo. This fight for worker status, as opposed to forced self-employment, is of course not unique to sex work. Every Uber driver, Deliveroo courier, Taskrabbiter, and gig economy worker in the UK should recognise it.

As with any group of marginalised workers, we need to build up the confidence of workers in the sex industry so that they can speak, vote, and take industrial strike action. This means tackling the stigma associated with selling sex that makes workers vulnerable to complex forms of exploitation. We recognise that women, men, and trans people have all experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly in the sex industry. We respect the choices or circumstances that lead them to enter sex work, continue it, or to exit it. Our desire to unionise comes directly out of our own experiences as workers. The union is 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.

What has decriminalisation got to do with the union?

The current laws that regulate what we can and can’t do with our bodies and the continued efforts to criminalise our workplaces make it difficult, at times nearly impossible, for sex workers to organise and unionise. Strip clubs are legal workplaces, but the Sexual Entertainment Venue licensing laws regulating them prioritise respectability over workers’ rights and safety. Equally, independent sex work is legal in Britain. It is, however, illegal to work on the street, for more than one person to work at the same premises (e.g. workers sharing a flat), or for another person to assist a sex worker in the course of their work (e.g. manage bookings or provide door security). These laws mean that workers are exposed to violence, theft and exploitation at work, and often face criminal charges for working with others to improve their safety.

Our lack of worker status is a huge obstacle to unionisation. At best we are classified as self-employed, but most of the time we are treated as victims in need of saving or as criminals. For the last decade, national governments and local authorities have used concerns about trafficking as a cover to create a hostile environment for migrants in the sex industry. Raids, closures, arrests and deportations have done next to nothing to address instances of forced and coerced labour in the sex industry. They’ve merely forced many migrant sex workers further underground and into more dangerous and precarious sex work. As part of our organising strategy we discuss with workers that when workers refuse to be divided by immigration status and stand up together, they are better able to confront injustice and exploitation. We are well aware, however, that as long as the sex industry remains criminalised unionisation will only get us so far.

Many feminists have been happy to allow the police and immigration officials to do the dirty work of trying to abolish the sex industry.

At the same time as working to increase our confidence and power at work (which is another way to explain what a union is), sex workers have also launched the Decrim Now campaign to demand the full decriminalisation of sex work and changes to the policies regulating sex entertainment venues. Our goal is to remove all laws that criminalise the organising, selling, or buying of sex or any other consensual sexual activity. We don’t want special laws that stigmatise us by singling out our work and quarantining it in a special zone. These sorts of laws make us more vulnerable to abuse by cops, immigration officials, and members of the public by relegating us to peripheral areas.

We need to decriminalise and unionise simultaneously so that the changes benefit workers rather than just bosses. Removing the laws that criminalise our work is essential so that sex workers can access justice and labour rights. Deciminalisation alone, however, will continue to leave us at the mercy of the market. By itself it is not enough. We need the collective mechanisms of unions to ensure that workers get a decent share of the profits, employment rights like sick pay, pensions, and regulated hours, and adequate health and safety standards.

Aren’t feminists part of the problem?

In Europe and across the Americas we are witnessing the emergence of an international movement that is experimenting with and struggling for a feminist future. The feminist strike is at the centre of this movement. Each time we strike, each time we assemble, each time we take to the streets we confront the patriarchal ideas of what it means to be a woman today. It is in the feminist strike that we are able to exceed the narrow categories of womanhood forced upon us and make good on our promise to make feminism a threat again.

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 happy to allow the police and immigration officials to do the dirty work of trying to abolish the sex industry. At the same time, neither neoliberal ‘lean-in’ feminists nor so-called ‘radical’ feminists have had much to say about the changes to social security benefits, introduction of zero-hour contracts, or 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.

To move towards the red feminist horizon is to continue the work of our feminist mothers and grandmothers in destabilising ideas of womanhood. We refuse to be divided into good and bad women. Nor is there anything stable, inherent, or natural about being a woman. From decades of black feminism we have learnt that universalist claims of what it means to be a woman serve the interests of some women at the expense of others. Such universalist claims actively work against the possibility of meaningful connections and solidarity being forged between members of the working class who experience womanhood in different ways.

As Chandra Mohanty argued 35 years ago, the relationship between the cultural and ideological construct of ‘Woman’ and the women who are the real material subjects of our collective histories is one of the central questions that feminism seeks to act upon. Just as feminist movements have previously, our task is to name, challenge, and resist the reactionary and patriarchal ideas of what it means to be a woman today. 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. That we cannot decide to sell sex, and that one cannot be raped while selling it. By organising as workers in the sex industry, by using our creativity and courage to transform the conditions and governance of our work, sex workers are doing the necessary work to intervene into the public debate about sex, violence, and power. We are taking the action required to move us towards the red feminist horizon.

Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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