Strippers Union

This is a transcript of a live interview from Radio Ava, the sex workers radio station. The interview documents first hand experience of raids on strip clubs by police and immigration vs strippers efforts to unionise and self organise.

 

Radio intro (R):

This month we have G in, who is an amazing stripper and sex worker activist advocate working with United Voices of the World. So we’re going to talk some stuff about your experience and your background: How did you get into giving a shit about sex workers?

 

G:

So I have been a stripper for about 3 and a half years and while I haven’t really been involved in activism before, there are issues that I’ve been involved in, been thinking about since I was like 16 but I never really had an outlet or an ability to… Yes, I should do anything about giving a shit. At the moment I am organising for the United Voices of the World, a union which are unionising strippers and sex workers as a whole. I’m at a grass-roots-work-let union which is going to be incredible for the campaign for decriminalising sex work and unionising as well.

 

R:

Amazing! So United Voices of the World are amazing and in the last few months they’ve had some really big wins striking with the cleaners. You and I met, G, at an amazing party which was put on by strippers and sex workers to raise funds for the strike campaign. It was amazing, you were performing, and that’s been really successful. Do you want to tell us a little bit about those successes?

 

G:

Yes. The solidarity between different types of precarious work and different types of feminized labour with United Voices of the World has been incredible. The fundraiser for raising the strike fund raised an incredible amount of money for the cleaners.

 

R:

Do we have an amounts of that that have been publicly released?

 

G:

£2,000

 

R: Not bad!

 

G:

Which is really good. And just recently with Deliveroo. United Voices of the World has also won a Topshop case where two workers were fired for union activity.

 

R:

Yeah right! And so United Voices were able to help them proof that case and they received compensation, amazing. It’s really bringing precedent. So you’ve had a recent very immediate experience with how being a member of a union as a stripper can be really helpful. What happened recently?

 

G:

I worked at xxxxx two weeks ago. And it was my first shift there. And an hour and a half in, there was an immigration raid. 6 police officers came in. And then what we thought at the time were CIDs or plain clothes detectives who were actually from the Home Office came in and checked the licensing of the club. Basically, we were kicked off stage, we were kicked out of the lap dance rooms, we weren’t told anything, and no information was given us. We had to sit in the corner and just be silent like naughty children, not workers doing their job. Everything came to a halt. Basically they checked the whole premise, and then they individually took us upstairs and interviewed us. When we were upstairs they took all our information: our address, contact details, they looked at my visa, they asked me which plane I caught to get to xxx. They documented noticeable marks and tattoos and piercings and databased it.

 

R: So they were taking notes of defining features, wow.

 

G:

Yes, they databased all of it, they were checking that we weren’t trafficked. But in a statement by the police after, they said that the police assisted by Home Office Immigration Enforcement officers made a Licensed Premises and Welfare visit it to a nightclub. So it was the Home Office that came but we were given no information.

 

R:

So you don’t know any information about what kind of database this information about you is being kept on. That’s terrifying and disrespectful.

 

G:

No arrests were made, nothing was found, but they collected the data anyway. How the data is being used we are unsure of.

 

R:

Right. And you said before that the dancers were kicked off stage, everybody was rounded up, put into interview rooms like naughty children. Did you feel like that because of the way the police were treating you at the time or what was the atmosphere?

 

G:

Yes it was the atmosphere and I think it’s also this: As confident as we are with our industry, there is still a sense of … that you are being naughty or that you’re not just working.

 

R:

The internalised stigma.

 

G:

Yes, the internalised stigma, and the internalised kind of a shame or guilt that you are doing something wrong when you are not.

 

R:

And really justified fears of being outed, and not knowing what this kind of intervention will lead to.

 

G:

Yes, I think also the presence of the police, I always imagine them as sharks, like sharking around the premise, while we are given no information about what’s happening, which also kind of adds to that “being children”…

 

R:

Infantilisation, yes.

 

G:

Nobody was breaking down and like: “THIS IS A RAID, GET DOWN!” It’s like people just walking around and you’re just kind of huddled in a corner, not saying anything and nobody is talking to you because it’s like “you are a stripper, you wouldn’t even understand”.

 

R:

Wow. And were the workers talking to each other? What was the chat?

 

G:

Yeah, the workers were terrified, And xxxxx has just classified lap dancing as violence against women and girls.

 

R: As political policy, yes.

 

G:

Yes. Not that all the strip clubs will be shut down but councils can choose to have a zero club policy.

 

R:

But there is the feeling that that’s what they are looking for, they’re looking for proof to justify their arguments.

 

G:

Yes, you go against your licensing anyway.

 

R:

And during this time, were you in touch with people from the union to get more information in real-time about your rights and about what was happening?

 

G:

Yes, so we’ve got a union WhatsApp chat. At the moment that it happened I was informing them of what was going on in Real-Time. The amount of solidarity was amazing and the amount of advice and direction that was given was also incredible. You feel less alone and feel less isolated, alienated, and confused. Because it’s really difficult to know what’s going on in those situations and to know the severity of them. While they are terrifying you can also kind of brush them off in a strange way, especially if you haven’t been involved in it before. So to have the solidarity of the union and to have people letting you know what rights you have, what kind of officers they would be, what to inform the other girls was amazing. And they were live-tweeting about it, they released a press release. And yes, it resulted in the Scotland police having to answer for what they did and that it was related to immigration. Yes, so all around the effect of the union behind the worker was really powerful.

 

R:

Amazing. And you’ve taken steps to… well, we’ve taken steps to get the word out to more people working in strip clubs about the union. So we went for a wander around xxxxx to a couple of strip clubs and tried to talk to people which is a complicated exercise because management aren’t always on board. How was it?

 

G:

Good. Yes, it is complicated with management because we are worker-led and we don’t want management involved in the organising. But it does become really hard to get through to the girls in a way that we seem verified or we seem authentic or seem trustworthy rather than us just coming in like crazy cat ladies or crazy church ladies, like: “Take our flyers!”

 

R: “Let us save you!”

 

G: “Let us help you!”

 

R:

“For free! We don’t expect to pay you for the time that you take to listen to us.” … Yes, it’s complicated.

 

G:

It is complicated to do that. And unionising is still kind of dirty word in the UK.

 

R:

Thanks Thatcher, thanks Labour Party!

 

G:

Yes, so it’s really difficult. Even while the raid was happening I was like: “Join the union!” We’re going to be able to help. So we’re organising with the migrant’s rights network to put a “Know Your Rights” sheet together that we are distributing to the clubs. – a few brothels have also been raided – to have “Know Your Rights” sheets because it’s really difficult in those situations to know what your rights are and to know the difference: if they are coming under the Modern Slavery Act or if they are coming under Immigration or if they are coming under a Welfare Check or a Licence Check.

 

R:

And even if they do disclose those motivations, what the hell all of that means.

 

G:

Yes, exactly. It’s really difficult to know. So yeah, we have the ability to put up some posters and to hand out these “Know Your Rights” information to them. I want to understand it better ourselves as well to then be able to help others and have the information. But yes, it’s hard to gain trust of workers which is really justified. You have to… It’s hard coming into a workplace being like: “Listen to me, I know what’s best for you!” Because it takes a lot of trust and takes some sort of moving up on a hierarchy for people to be able to understand the place that you’re coming from.

 

R:

Yes definitely. And it’s not only a numbers game of getting a few people in each club where it seems legit, you know, but it’s also time. It takes a lot of time for word to get around and for people to slowly get news of what the union’s doing to help people and that they are on board and there for the right reasons.

 

 

G:

Yes, we were saying it’s quite easy as a worker for people to tune into the struggles of other workers and then have these conversations with people. But it’s quite hard to get these conversations out of the changing room, to get them into a spectrum where things are actually being done about them. So it’s very easy to be like: The house fees are ridiculously expensive! Or: It’s ridiculous that they are fining girls this much! Or: You treated us so disposably! The health and safety in clubs is not right! It’s so easy to talk about all these issues – and people have been feeling these issues since the beginning of stripping – but it’s really difficult to actually get people to join the union.

 

R:

Do you think it’s because people don’t feel that the union the really give them any empowerment?

 

G:

Yeah, I think they are not used to having a voice. They’re not used to having a union. I think it’s hard to see: what will the union actually do for me, especially in a short term, like in a short period of time. It’s easy to say that we have got a 5-year plan and these are the goals of the future. But in the meantime: what is the union actually doing for them? So it’s been useful holding things like tax workshops. Being able to have lawyers on hand to talk to about if you’ve been raided or what happens with tax or people that have this information or if you’ve been fired…

 

R:

So more like practical help.

 

G:

Yeah exactly. In short-term periods of time. Because union organising is really stigmatised and if you get fired for union organising, like the potential for blacklisting is huge: like never getting a job in that city again is terrifying. I think a lot of the people that really need unionizing are the people who are least likely to join the union because it is a terrifying concept.

 

R:

Because of the exposure that it brings

 

N:

But also because I guess people engaged in that kind of self-employed, self-motivated work are used to dealing with their problems on their own…

 

R+G:

Yeah.

 

N:

and having to deal with their problems on their own. And you don’t trust something… or it’s not even a thing of trust, it’s like: you don’t know why you would invest your time into someone’s project because that’s how I would perceive somebody coming in to talk to me about unions. It’s like: fine, you’ve got your thing, you want to organise this but why would I… I do fine on my own. And it’s like having practical help that you can offer. Because honestly, I don’t know if I would join the union for those reasons.

 

R+G:

Yeah.

 

N:

But if they offered practical things like legal help, all of these things where are you end up feeling helpless and unable to figure out what to do and not knowing which avenues to turn to, then it would be something I would look at.

 

G:

I think especially when there were the raids. It’s easier going into a place like… Instead of being like: There MIGHT be an immigration raid, you should join the union! Like: Look, there HAS been a raid! This has happened. I know everyone is terrified. The amount of people that stopped showing up to work or were worried to go into work were huge. And instead the union are doing things, you know, to show people that we are taking action and that things are coming from it. Because it is hard to get people to join the union when no industrial action has been taken yet or nothing is really being won yet. So kind of campaigning for workers’ rights.

 

The way that our contracts are is that we are self-employed but in our contracts we are classified as workers but it says were self-employed. We get neither the benefits of being self-employed and none of the benefits of being workers. The club I work at, you’re fully self-employed, you pay 20 quid at the door, you show up whenever you want. Bang, you’re self-employed! But the rest of the clubs is roster schedules, there is uniforms you have to wear, there’s a whole list of rules you have to do, people are employed there for long periods of time, you are a worker. So things like holiday pay, sick pay, national minimum wage on top of commissions. And also you couldn’t be classified self-employed and a worker at the same time. Even convincing people that we want to fight for worker status is not something that a lot of people want to push for because people are worried that they’re going to stop earning the money that they do now.

 

R:

Or their freelance status where they can show up for work when they want to.

 

G:

But that’s only this one club, you know. So the rest of them are like: you’re worried about losing something you don’t have.

 

R:

Yeah, yeah.

 

G:

All you’re doing is gaining things, you’re not losing anything. But it’s really hard to see that. I find that hard to see still, even though I know a lot about it.

 

R:

So there’s these two aspects: There is the direct support that people can access when they need it in terms of legal support or information or people to be there in solidarity when raids are happening. And then there is this lobbying and policy change aspect. So do you want to tell us a little bit about this weekend’s agenda?

 

G:

So at the weekend two things are happening: The rich mix is happening. So tonight we’re holding a panel and then tomorrow there is a symposium, The Decrim Now Campaign is launching. The Decrim Now and the unionizing campaign are working together to decriminalise sex work and then to unionize at the same time. To be there in policy change and also be there for the workers at the same time. We are going to the World Transformed conference in Liverpool.

 

R:

It is a Labour Party Conference, is it?

 

G:

It’s running aside the Labour Party Conference. And then the Decrim Now Campaign is launching which will be amazing.

 

R:

Awesome! Good luck! Much power to you all!

 

G:

Thank you.

 

R:

Thank you so much for coming in talking today!

 

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