Photo Credit – Julie Cook
Today’s Guest Blog is by Stacey Clare, Co-founder of the East London Strippers Collective. I first saw Stacey on the Channel 4 documentary: The Sisterhood of Strippers. I admire the work that Stacey and other members of the ELSC have done, and continue to for strippers across the UK. It takes a lot of bravery to go against the grain and fight for the rights of sex workers, a group that the majority of society has very little respect for.
Ok ladies, you know the drill. You’ve all experienced the bullying, the micromanaging, the hypocrisy and the double standards. You’ve worked through the misogyny, the mind games, the gas lighting and the manipulation. You’ve smiled sweetly and held your tongues as the house fees and commissions have increased – despite the fact that the price of a lap dance hasn’t changed in years. You’ve had to get dressed in changing rooms that should have been written off as environmental hazards, and performed on stages that Health And Safety forgot. You’ve had to negotiate sexist, racist and discriminatory comments from security guards and DJs, suck it up when you’ve been sacked without notice for calling in sick, swallow your pride when you’ve been told your outfit is wrong or fined for using your phone when the club has been empty for hours. Being 10 minutes late will get you fined, fired, or suspended; yes, you could have been better at time keeping, but aren’t you meant to be self-employed? Loyalty counts for nothing in a place where your time and labour is not respected. Whether you’ve been a dancer for 15 days or 15 years, you apparently have no rights or protections to speak of. And all while dressed in just your underwear and 7 inch heels.
This is what we are going to change. We are going to stand up and refuse to be overlooked. We will use our collective voice to defend our livelihoods and choices, or lack of them, and we will not be spoken for any longer. We will argue that what we do is work, that we sell our time and labour, that we provide a service. We will demand that, like service-providers in other industries (plumbers or taxi drivers for example), we deserve to be recognised as workers, and to finally have our industry regulated under employment law. We will work together as a finely tuned machine with a shared goal, to decriminalise the sex industry. We will rejoice and celebrate our work and culture, we will provide solidarity and support. We’ll dance, drink, eat, menstruate and cackle together. It’s going to be a riot, and you are all invited.
What has happened so far?
In 2014 the East London Strippers Collective was founded to challenge the stereotyping and misrepresentation of strippers at every level of society. We all know our working conditions have got worse each year, since the 2009 Policing and Crime Act, which updated the way strip clubs are legislated. We watched as our industry was dragged through the gutter press, while the government failed to address our workers rights. Rather than improving our working conditions, they merely imposed stupid new rules that don’t prevent clubs from financially exploiting us. What’s the point in having showers, lockers and dancing a metre away from customers if our house fees go up and we have to pay more commission? Nobody asked us what we actually needed, and we were not properly represented during the public debate before the law was changed.
ELSC is a network of strippers who are all working together, building solidarity with each other and with workers across the wider sex industry. Earlier this year on International Women’s Day, 8th of March, ELSC came together with several other sex worker lead organisations, including ECP, SWARM, X-Talk Project and the Women’s Strike Assembly to begin organising a UK wide campaign to unionise the sex industry, demand employment rights for strippers and sex workers, and decriminalise sex work altogether. We have begun working with a trade union called United Voices of the World. UVW are a worker’s union, which means no bosses or managers can join. The union works at a grassroots level, so all decisions and actions are lead by workers, not by union bosses or bureaucrats. Joining a union is about taking back control over what happens in our workplace – UVW want to help us not the clubs.
So what can be done?
For years clubs have controlled and coerced us by calling all the shots. They have abused their power to extort money from us, and make us sign so-called “contracts”, which are often nothing more than a list of non-negotiable house rules that we must obey, like it or not. The irony is that these contracts might be the very thing that we can use against them, to dismantle their shady business model. We have shown copies of these contracts to employment lawyers, and it turns out that we have a strong argument for something called worker status.
It is generally understood that strippers are self-employed; although we know in practise we are treated as employees. If we had a regular job, working for a company like Sainsbury’s for example, we would be officially employed with a work contract, and our employer would be responsible for paying our National Insurance and income tax for us, as well as providing holiday pay and sick pay (which are legal requirements for employers). Now, if you are self-employed you pay your own taxes and have the freedom to come and go. You don’t get holiday pay etc. but you can work as much or as little as you like, and if you don’t turn up the only person who is affected is you.
There is actually a third status, known as worker status. The confusing part is that you can be self-employed and still have worker status. If you sign up to work for a company that provides you with work, then you may have worker status. Uber drivers are self-employed but they work for Uber. Deliveroo cyclists are self-employed but they work for Deliveroo. Hairdressers are self-employed but they work for a particular salon. This is what’s called the gig-economy, and strippers have been in it for years. We are the original zero-hour contractors, and it turns out we actually do have rights after all.
Under UK employment law, people with worker status already have certain employment rights. According to the government website these include:
• getting the National Minimum Wage
• protection against unlawful deductions from wages
• the statutory minimum level of paid holiday
• the statutory minimum length of rest breaks
• to not work more than 48 hours on average per week or to opt out of this right if they choose
• protection against unlawful discrimination
• protection for ‘whistleblowing’ – reporting wrongdoing in the workplace
• to not be treated less favourably if they work part-time
Workers may also be entitled to sick pay and maternity pay; imagine that?! Strippers getting maternity pay instead of the sack – now that would be amazing for the feminist movement.
So how can you get involved?
This is where you come in. We need your voices and input to create change. No one is going to do this for you – tabloid journalists are not going to suddenly stop writing gross, moralistic articles about sex workers. Politicians are not going to suddenly wake up one day and realise that the more they shut down strip clubs and push sex work underground the more they put us in danger. Clubs are certainly not going to change their business model out of the goodness of their hearts (what hearts, eh ladies?). So, who is left? Us.
If you want to be involved then join the union. 1 year’s membership costs about the same as one night’s house fees and commissions. Union membership gives you legal protections and a support network from other members. It gives you a phone number you can call when things go wrong, so you can speak directly to someone and report workplace abuses.
You don’t have to be publicly out as a stripper when you join, or tell your family. You can remain anonymous and you can even give a fake name and fake workplace to the union if you want to avoid being identified. You can join even if you are between clubs, or if you have only just started dancing, or are thinking about quitting. Joining the union will give you the same protections no matter what industry you go into, so if you have a day job, or you are a burlesque/cabaret performer, then the union will help you with any work place issues that arise there too.
If you haven’t been declaring your income and paying tax, you don’t need to worry – the union is not going to report you, they want to help. Joining the union means having a network of supportive and brilliant people around you, who will help point you in the right direction. X-Talk run regular tax workshops for strippers and sex workers, so if you want to get your finances in order you can, and we’ll help.
There are regular meetings happening in London and Scotland, and strippers around the UK are starting to organise. There are future events planned to raise awareness and build solidarity between workers. You do not have to be a union member to come to a meeting, but it’s a good idea. Meetings are strictly for dancers and union organisers only, under no circumstances can bosses and managers attend. You can speak openly and freely about workplace abuses at meetings, and your union rep will take your grievances seriously.
There is funding available to cover travel into London to attend meetings. If you can’t get childcare, we can also organise a crèche so you can bring your children during the day.
Coming to meetings might seem boring or dry, you might be put off by legal language or stuff to do with employment law. But rest assured you are not the only one. No one likes that feeling of not understanding something – it makes us feel small and stupid, worthless even. We are performers, right? We don’t wanna sit in the classroom. But this is not the same. If you don’t understand something, or need it explained you have the right to ask and someone will explain it for you. The union will patiently explain as many times as you need, and they will never shut you down. No one is going to punish you for not knowing this stuff. Most people don’t realise they have rights, because they get used to the way things are, and those who have power rely on that. But the only way we are going to change the industry is by arming ourselves with the facts. Knowledge is absolute power, and we want you to understand everything so you can take that power back into the clubs with you.
Don’t wait for things to go wrong
This is happening now. We are a matter of weeks away from beginning to take industrial action against clubs, and we want you to be part of this movement. Are you having problems at work? Being harassed or bullied? Just got fired? Follow this simple 3 step guide:
1. As soon as possible, write down what happened in as much detail as possible, or ask a friend to help you write it down. You may need this later as a record for legal or union action.
2. Call the stripper hotline: 07497559645. Leave a message and someone from the union will be in touch.
3. Don’t give up or lose hope. We need to call out abuses when they happen, to prevent them from happening again.
Joining the union gives you some immediate protections – you can’t be fired for any union activity in the workplace for example. So that means if managers hear you talking to other girls about the union and they try to fire you for it, that’s against the law. If you have been working somewhere regularly for a while, depending on your circumstances you may be entitled to claim backdated sick pay, holiday pay and national minimum wage for all the hours you’ve worked there. It’s gotta be worth a shot, right girls?
It won’t be easy, but the sooner we start sending the message out to clubs that they can’t push us around anymore, the sooner we can start improving our industry before it is wiped out completely.
However, the union cannot work on your behalf if you are not a member. Go to uvwunion.org.uk. It costs £5, £7 or £10 per month, depending on how much you earn (up to you which bracket you select). The union is pro-sex work and will never reveal your status or identity to anyone without your full consent.
We are finally beginning to take action, and this concerns you directly. Don’t be left out of the conversation. Get behind a movement that genuinely understands your job and wants to actually help, not “save” or “rescue” you. We are on your side. Get on our side and you will be valued, respected and supported. That’s a promise.