On International Women’s Day, sex workers are going on strike

They're demanding decriminalisation and full workers' rights, reports Ava Caradonna

March 6, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Juno Mac (Flickr)

Current laws around sex work criminalise the way that many working class women earn a living, leaving many workers exposed to workplace exploitation, violence, and police persecution. They make work dangerous and jeopardise the lives of workers. And in many legal sex work industries such as stripping, workplaces are often governed by rampantly exploitative, neoliberal policies which sees workers paying attend work, being fined for minor infractions, and handing over large percentages of their earnings to the ‘house’. 

In many other industries, exploitation and violence might be treated as outrages, which should be tackled by empowering workers and targeting shady employment practises. Often sex workers face the opposite reaction, as complaints about their working conditions lead many to call for further criminalisation, a tactic which only redoubles the problem.

So on International Women’s day, sex workers across the country are going on strike to demand the full decriminalisation of sex work and better working conditions. A better deal for sex workers is fundamental to gender justice and ensuring that worker’s rights are truly universal.

These tactics have already seen some success. In the last year, strippers in new union United Voices of the World have begun unionising their workplacesacross the country. They’ve taken on bosses and unfair conditions – winning thousands of pounds in compensation after only a few months of organising. 

Lydia, a 21-year-old sex worker explained: “I’m striking because my brothel manager continues to increase the amount of money, she takes from us, and threatens our jobs when we try to object. I need decriminalisation so that I am granted the same protection as other workers, and the ability to unionise.”

Criminalisation is often justified under the auspices of ‘protecting’ women – but a combination of legal censure and economic hardship has pushed more women into positions of constructed vulnerability. Low wages, benefits cuts and precarious jobs have pushed more and more into sex work. The response of the state has not been to reduce austerity but instead to crack down on sex workers. Police raid brothels, strip clubs and flats, confiscate earnings and threaten, arrest and deport sex workers. They impose fines and prosecute those who work on the streets. Migrant sex workers are targeted as undesirable, held in detention centres and deported – whilst the hostile environment leaves them even less able to seek official help and frontline services when they need it. This steady marginalisation leaves working women unable to access basic protections. So, strikers are demanding that we stop treating sex work like a problem to be policed out of existence – and start treating sex workers as people deserving of support, protection and fundamental rights.

Our tendency to exceptionalise sex work is part of a broader trend of policing, dismissing, underpaying and exploiting labour overwhelmingly done by women. This is why, the organisers claim, that their demands for workplace justice sketch out a better future for all women – from sex workers to night cleaners to unpaid carers. With other members of Women’s Strike UK, on March 8th they will refuse to do sex/work for money and will not carry out the domestic and care work they are expected to do for free: the jobs that keep the system ticking over. The strike is part of a wider tactic to highlight the fundamental fact that women’s work – both paid and unpaid – is the basis for our entire economic system, and yet it is the least valued, the least remunerated, and those who perform it are the most readily sidelined.

Molly Smith, sex worker and author of Revolting Prostitutes said: “I’m striking because criminalisation prevents us from access to basic labour rights and safety. We are forced to work alone or risk arrest. The criminalisation of sex work is one of the many ways in which patriarchy and capitalism conspire to exploit all women’s labour, whether we’re working in the home, the office or the brothel. Sex workers and other feminists are on strike to demand that society value women’s work and women’s safety.”

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