By Laura Watson
In 1980, the English Collective of Prostitutes wrote to Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress in the UK, asking to affiliate as a union. Since we were founded in 1975, we had been defending women against criminalisation, workplace violence and exploitation, and providing other support – the kind of work a trade union does and the reason that we had become known as “The Girls’ Union”.
Specifically, we asked that our campaign against the prostitution laws, which determined our wages and working conditions, be recognised as a trade dispute. The TUC refused.
Up until today, sex workers have largely been kept out of trade unions and denied the protections membership can offer. The women’s section of ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen), which passed policy in favour of decriminalisation in 2017, have been the most determined and energetic campaigners within the trade union movement. They have been supported by a few others, including the GMB, which brought sex workers into membership in 2002.
Internationally, it’s been rare for sex workers to be able to unionise. Dancers at the Lusty Lady club in San Francisco are one exception, and in Argentina the sex workers organisation AMMAR is affiliated to the national trade union federation. In India and France, sex workers’ organisations have established themselves as unions. In Thailand, Empower founded and runs the “Can Do” Bar, where sex workers’ labour rights are protected – a model that trade unions could learn from.
Some of the largest UK unions refuse outright to recognise sex workers as workers and promote the criminalisation of “those who purchase sex acts” despite compelling evidence that this has increased violence against sex workers. In our 1980 letter, we suggested that trade unions have forgotten their roots because “the people who formed trade unions were all criminals before the law.”
“For these unions, prostitution, not poverty, is uniquely degrading. We must therefore ask: are we not degraded when we see our kids go without, have to skip meals, beg or submit to a violent partner to keep a roof over our heads?”
Austerity cuts, 86% of which have fallen on women, have increased prostitution as more women, particularly single mothers, are turning to sex work to feed their families. The statistics are horrifying: four million children are living in poverty, 1.25 million people are officially destitute, and asylum-seekers are barely surviving on £36 (US$47) a week if they qualify; many get nothing at all. Single mothers desperate to provide for their children are 85% of those affected by the benefit cap and the majority targeted by Universal Credit. The devastating effect of benefit cuts and sanctions, where welfare payments are reduced or stopped altogether for months at a time, was illustrated in harrowing detail by acclaimed director Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake.
Low pay, exploitation, discrimination
But austerity has also put great strain on all women workers. Cuts to public funding and privatisation mean that women across the board are working harder for less. Our research What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This? which compared sex work with other jobs disproportionately done by women found that low pay, exploitation, discrimination and workplace injury were endemic.
Unsurprisingly however, it also found that sex workers earned more per hour than even public sector employees. This higher wage was explicitly stated by one sex worker as the reason for taking up the job:
“It’s the only possibility to earn more than the minimum wage in less time. With that higher hourly wage comes independence, relief, choice and fewer worries. The difference between other jobs I’ve worked at, such as pubs or retail where you get £7 (US$9.2) per hour, and sex work is stark.”
When Empower reported that “wages in other industries that commonly employ women, such as agriculture, fisheries and factories, are so low that even the lowest paid sex workers in Thailand are earning twice the minimum wage”, it confirmed that across the globe women are going into sex work to resist the grinding poverty imposed on us all.
The problem is that sex work is criminalised and this undermines safety by preventing sex workers working together and deterring women from reporting violence for fear of arrest. Worse still, criminalisation cuts sex workers off from the ways other workers have found to organise and improve their working conditions. Even basic protections are denied to us, let alone the right to join a trade union and organise collectively, go on strike and protest against our work when it is exploitative and abusive.
No wonder then that the international sex worker led movement is demanding decriminalisation along the lines of the law introduced in New Zealand in 2003. It removed prostitution from the criminal law, gave people the right to work together and organise to improve their working conditions. Over 90 per cent of sex workers said that since the law change they have more rights, including 64.8 per cent who said they found it easier to refuse clients — a key marker against exploitation. Seventy per cent said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.
A new campaign #MakeAllWomenSafe
In the UK, our new campaign #MakeAllWomenSafe highlights specifically the injustice of the laws which prevent women working together for safety. A short film directed by Bafta nominated Charlotte Regan and starring Lyndsey Marshal has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. It tells a simple story: women are forced to choose between possible arrest and keeping themselves safe, avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger.
People ask: ’Well, what about trafficking?’ We answer: there’s a law against that. ’What about rape?’ There’s a law against that too. And against murder. Yet, as the recent BBC documentary The Yorkshire Ripper Files: a Very British Crime Story showed, working class women’s lives are devalued by the very institutions paid to protect us. And that has not changed. How else can we explain the ever-decreasing conviction rate for rape and domestic violence?
Our petition calls on the UK government to introduce legislation to decriminalise sex workers working together in premises and on the street. Supported by celebrities such as Sarah Solemani (Bridget Jones’ Baby) and human rights organisation Amnesty International, this campaign is changing the terrain.
It is not asking what people think of sex work or whether sex work is uniquely degrading (apply the same question to McDonald’s workers and you’ll realise how absurd it is). It is focused on the reality that over 70,000 women will today or tomorrow or sometime soon be exchanging sex for money and the laws governing that exchange are forcing us to do it in ways that are more isolating, dangerous and exploitative.
Who can justify denying women the right to work together for safety and to organise in a union? Yes, that is a question, who? Which trade union, which women’s organisation, which politician?