Sex workers’ unionisation and organisation is possible. In the UK, the GMB was founded more than one century ago by gas workers who many thought they couldn’t organise. They were young workers, with very hard working conditions, but they were able to be the first in the world to win a working time agreement at 8 hours a day. Nowadays, the GMB organises sex workers who face similar issues. Because of the law, sex workers can’t work together and are isolated from each other which makes difficult to meet colleagues and organise collectively. Despite being called the oldest profession we are one of the youngest trade union and we still lack this culture of trade unionisation.
In the past, sex workers have already taken industrial actions. In Hawaii Honolulu 1942, sex workers went on strike and picketed for 22 days to protest against specific brothels rules and the martial law that denied their rights, including their freedom of movement. In Machala Ecuador 1984, sex workers went on strike to protest exploitation and closed the brothels they were working in. In San Francisco 1997, strippers working in the Lusty Lady club took action and founded a trade union called the Exotic Dancers Union. In 2003, the owners of the club then decided to close it but the unionised workers bought the club to run it as a cooperative. More recently in Ghana 2010, sex workers organised within the Commercial workers union decided to raise their rates collectively in response to high inflation.
On June 30, many workers will go on strike to defend their job, their pension and public services for all. As a sex worker, it is difficult to support concretely my comrades since I don’t work for an employer in a regulated workplace with labour rights. I still go sometimes to picket lines to show some solidarity but I feel frustrated that as workers in the sex industry we don’t seem to have a real power of nuisance since the withdrawal of our labour would be in many cases pointless.
Some opponents to sex workers’ rights say that sex workers never go on strike which is seen as an evidence of our lack of power and lack of capacity to organise. When sex workers organise, we do in priority against violence, criminalisation and the bad laws. In that context, we may often end up defending the same interest as the employers of the sex industry and this leads some to think that instead of organising against our exploitation we act in its favour.
Because of the law, many sex workers have to work as self employed. Indeed, any boss would be legally considered as a pimp. Challenging an employer would make visible this employer/employee relationship and could lead to arrest and thus jeopardise the job itself. A closed brothel or escort agency means one less workplace for us and losing our job. Despite our economic interest being different to those of our employers, many sex workers will show them respect and solidarity; because an employer is often a former worker or seen as a co-worker when many are still doing their old clients, because they are the ones taking the risk legally for us so we can work indoors or in a safer environment, and because despite situations of exploitation, when they don’t force us to work, we don’t see them as criminals.
According to the law and the UN declaration on Human Rights, any worker has the right to join a trade union. Any worker has the right to go on strike because our ancestors died for it and this should be remembered. Sex workers must have the same labour rights as any other worker because we are workers too.