UK: Sex workers who are doing it for themselves

Wednesday 17 June 2009
Paul Haste

“I’m still waiting for someone to give a me a reason why sex workers shouldn’t organise,” says GMB organiser Martin Smith as he recalls the origins of the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW).

This is a branch of his union that has succeeded in bringing together dancers, escorts, prostitutes and sex line operators, as well as many maids and security guards who work in the sex industry.

“Ana Lopes, a Portuguese migrant worker working as a prostitute in London, approached the union eight years ago, and it was clear then, as it is today, that these are workers just like other workers who need to unionise to improve their conditions, says Smith.

“At first there was a fear that the union would be accused of promoting prostitution, but we were organising casino workers at the same time and no-one was accusing us of promoting gambling,” he adds.

Catherine Stephens, who has been a sex worker for nine years and has become a tireless IUSW union activist, confirms that the fact that she holds a union card has been difficult for some trade unionists to accept.

“This topic concerns money, sex and power, so it is always going to be contentious,” says Stephens.

But as she spells out the stigma, isolation and vulnerability that sex workers endure, her eyes widen in disbelief that anyone could oppose her efforts to assert some measure of control over her own life.

“Some of the worst labour violations occur in the sex industry, but astonishingly our right to organise is still contested.

“Even though sex workers have succeeded in organising a union, there are still other workers who actively campaign to marginalise us.

“But just as we couldn’t possibly have a debate about construction or casinos and fail to talk to the workers involved, it should be common sense to listen to us when the sex industry is discussed,” she insists.

Rosie Campbell, an outreach worker with 14 years experience on the front line dealing with the problems in the industry, adds that “it would be good to get to a position where sex work is not a contentious subject, but workers are criminalised in so many ways.

“For instance, it is a crime to work in a brothel where people feel safer working together, so women are forced to work on the street, later at night, with little time to assess clients or negotiate with them, and where they are obviously more vulnerable to violence.”

Sian, who has worked with street sex workers in Manchester for eight years, also emphasises how women have been “incredibly marginalised and stigmatised – to the point where they sometimes cannot even access basic medical services – because of the work they do.”

“And those who are marginalising us,” interjects Stephens, “are often those who claim to be helping.

“Many organisations who work with victimised and abused sex workers think that is all the industry is, because that is all they see, but there is far more to the industry than that.

“We can tell them that sex workers feel under threat more from the state than anyone else, especially when police raids mean eight or nine officers in full battle regalia bailing into a tiny apartment that has one worker and one maid working there.”

Michael, who has been a sex worker for four years, points out that some “well-meaning NGOs concentrate exclusively on the trafficking of women, and it is undeniable that this goes on, but there are trafficked workers picking strawberries or working in garment factories too, and when the police conduct a single raid on such a workplace, they often uncover as many trafficked workers as scores and scores of police raids on the walk-ups and parlours in London where we work.

“Another problem is that both the police and NGOs seem to think that all foreign workers must be trafficked,” adds Catherine, “but it’s just a basic fact that most sex workers in the capital are migrants.

“It shouldn’t be difficult to understand that for many migrant workers, having sex for cash beats slaving away for the minimum wage or less in hard, difficult jobs in hotels and restaurants.”

Catherine stresses that “there are no more dedicated opponents of abuse in the sex industry than sex workers themselves, and we strongly believe that the best way to expose such abuse is to get the workers in the industry organised.

“But the government’s emphasis on criminalising us, and the NGO insistence that all sex work is related to violence, just leads to a situation where we are pushed further into the shadows while police raids just result in some unfortunate undocumented migrant worker getting deported.”

Jessica, a full-time prostitute in Liverpool, quietly points to a solution to this marginalisation. “The union can take our work out of the shadows,” she says, and shakes her head when she considers that her right to join one could even be a matter for debate.

“I’m angry at those trade unionists who seem to delight in trying to deny us the right to stand up for ourselves, at being told by intelligent women that sex workers cannot speak for themselves.

“Those who oppose us organising simply don’t understand that many women are sex workers because it pays better than sitting on a supermarket checkout and the hours allow them to look after their children – the reasons can be that mundane, but our critics don’t want to hear it.”

Catherine suggests that opposition to their union is “part of a wider perception that we don’t have any rights at all. It’s the same as when taxi drivers harass us or men on the street insult us, just because they feel they can behave like that with impunity,” she stresses.

But Catherine is proud that her union has challenged such attitudes and recognised that sex workers have the right to stand up for themselves.

“The GMB have taken a lot of flak on this, but has really stood up to it and supported us,” she says.

“It’s a little disappointing that we still have to say it, but sex workers unionising is not about condoning or condemning prostitution. All workers have different experiences – some sex workers want to get out of the industry and others enjoy their work, but the point is, whatever work you are doing, you have rights and you have the absolute right to organise and demand those rights.”

To those who claim that unions cannot represent sex workers effectively, Catherine explains that the situation “is similar to undocumented workers in the union, in that having a union card gives them some legitimacy that they are denied by the state, and being a union member certainly, unquestionably, gives them the confidence to fight back against injustice at work.

“It’s the knowledge that there are other workers like you that gives you this confidence. And coming together in the union with others who are in the same situation allows you to speak out, be heard and feel respected.”

Anna Meyer, the GMB officer representing IUSW members, says that “I’ve never known such commitment to the union and such dedicated activism from such a relatively small organised workforce. This is what trade unionism is all about.”

Smith emphatically agrees. “The courage of these union members, who are some of the most vulnerable, marginalised workers in this society, is second to none.

“After listening to them describe their experiences and what they have to overcome to get organised and get respect, I can’t imagine anyone giving me a reason as to why they shouldn’t unionise.”

Original at MorningStar

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