How do you organise in a workplace that isn’t recognised as one?
For the past year, the United Kingdom has seen widespread economic and political turmoil. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, real-term wage cuts, job insecurity and work pressures, many people have sought to unionise. But when it comes to sex workers, their ability to do so is complicated.
Audrey Caradonna, a spokesperson for the Bristol Sex Workers’ Collective (BSWC) and national campaign for sex workers’ rights Decrim Now, says the UK needs to decriminalise sex work to expand labour rights and protections to all sex workers, and enable them to unionise.
While it’s legal to buy and sell sex in Britain, sex work is regulated through government legislation. Soliciting, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and advertising are all illegal.
Sex workers’ employment rights barriers
And despite sexual entertainment venues, like strip clubs, being licensed by local councils, strippers are often misclassified as ‘self-employed’, meaning they’re not legally protected as workers. This means they’re not entitled to employment rights, like sick-pay, holiday pay or minimum wage, and don’t have trade union recognition.
Audrey says strippers should be the easiest sex workers to unionise because they’re legally recognised as workers – but in practice, they have to go to court to get worker status. Once that’s obtained, their workplaces are legally unable to refuse them statutory employment rights.
Anonymity is not guaranteed by the courts – that’s a huge barrier.Audrey Caradonna
But significant difficulties arise when going to court for sex workers who seek to remain anonymous. Judges can decide whether or not to grant anonymity, and this can prevent people from pursuing a case.
“As part of the Sex Workers’ Union, we have established a good precedent of people obtaining anonymity and then going on to worker status claims or to face financial discrimination claims,” Audrey says. “But anonymity is not a guarantee. So, that’s another huge barrier in trying to organise workers.”
In addition, ‘brothel keeping’ laws, designed to protect sex workers and prevent sex trafficking, can actually hinder access to basic employment rights, and make sex work riskier. Two people working in the same place can be criminalised, as can driving a friend to and from a booking.
Audrey says street sex workers are frequently targeted by orders intended to punish anti-social behaviour. They can face costly fines, and even face prison time, because of laws around loitering and soliciting.
Decriminalising brothels would enable sex workers to enact safety measures without risk of prosecution, she argues. And those working under management would be able to negotiate better working conditions.
In 2022, the National Police Chiefs Council urged the government to reassess legislation around ‘brothel keeping,’ for these reasons. Currently, the only country in the world to have fully decriminalised sex work is New Zealand, leading to a significant reduction in violence against sex workers.
Stigma and discrimination
Stigma around sex work can also make it harder to get better conditions. “Our work is very precarious,” says Audrey. “It’s one thing that joins all sex work together.”
“Even when you’re doing a legal form of sex work, like stripping, you’re still under constant threat of having those clubs closed down.” She adds that strippers may feel hindered in raising issues in their workplaces for fear of them being closed or de-licensed.
Maedb Joy, founder and director of Sexquisite, a performing arts company that gives sex worker artists paid creative opportunities and an alternative income stream, says even ex-sex workers face discrimination.
“Workplaces can discriminate against you if you have ever been a sex worker,” she says. “If you have got a criminal record from doing sex work, then you can’t work in schools because you won’t be able to get a DBS certificate.
“Society tells sex workers to go get another job or shames them for not having enough money and having to do sex work, but then punishes them,” she adds.
In March 2021, Sexquisite became legally registered as a ‘performing arts and events company’. Despite this, Maedb and her business partner were denied a business bank account – five times, she says.
The Independent recently reported sex workers being refused bank accounts or having their assets frozen due to the nature of their work. This can put them at greater risk of homelessness, and force them to undertake risker forms of sex work.
“In the future, I’d like to see financial institutions accepting sex workers, giving them space [and letting] them exist in wider society,” says Maedb.
This year, the Sex Workers’ Union won compensation for a worker who had their online content stolen, helped a full-service worker receive payment following a client who had refused to pay and succeeded in a worker status claim for another stripper.
It also took a financial institution to court for discrimination against a sex worker after refusing to give them an account.
“If you give sex workers the microphone we will tell you exactly what needs to be changed within our industry and what we need,” Audrey says. “There is so much energy and appetite to unionise and change our own working conditions for the better.”
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