What are the challenges of unionising sex workers?

At the TUC Women’s Conference in March, a motion calling for the decriminalisation of sex work fell by 89 votes to 44.

At the TUC Congress in September, according to the Independent: “Delegates voted overwhelmingly against the call on the final day of the TUC’s annual conference [to decriminalise sex work]”. However, the issue looks unlikely to go away as the number of sex workers in Britain increases as job insecurity rises.

The TUC General Council opposed the motion, questioning calls for sex workers to have the same rights as other workers due to the nature of the job sex workers do.

Some light can be shone on the matter by looking at the challenges of unionising sex workers. This is because if sex workers are designated to be workers, the next logical step is to consider how they can be unionised so, like other workers, they can come together collectively to advance and defend their interests as workers. This is what I did in my recent book, Sex Worker Unionization: Global Developments, Challenges and Possibilities (2016).

Organising sex workers typifies many of the sharpest challenges for unionisation. These include organising self-employed workers with no regular or fixed place of work, high levels of turnover and, effectively, zero hour contracts – and all taking place within greatly expanding labour markets due to migration.

Despite these challenges, sex worker activists have succeeded in persuading fellow workers to unionise (either through joining existing unions or creating new ones) in some 30 countries including Australia, Britain, Germany, Netherland, the US, India and Cambodia.

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 and being forced to work long hours without breaks. But there are also different problems which most workers don’t have to face such as having 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, sex workers also want to add a political voice to their economic one. Consequently, they have used unionisation to amplify their public position on the legal status of sex work.

But unionisation has been no easy task. The numbers involved have been small, progress has been limited in making substantive gains, and many unions 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), as well as individual and wider political representation. After initial successes, energy levels have waned. Organisational development has stalled and many sex worker unions have folded.

Yet despite these problems, when one organisation folds another often emerges to take its place. This suggests there is a continuing demand for collective interest representation and a willingness of activists to step up to the plate to provide that representation. Sex worker unionisation is, therefore, very much a work in progress and a battle still being fought across the world.

  • Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford. Sex Worker Unionization: Global Developments, Challenges and Possibilities was published by Palgrave – see http://www.palgrave.com/de/book/9781137320131 .


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