The push to unionise the sex industry

By | March 7, 2016

Gregor GallI began studying the unionisation of sex workers in 2002 when the media in Britain was awash with stories about the formation of the London-based International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW). It turned out that the IUSW was not a (labour) union and wasn’t very international either. Both were aspirations that were not to be realised. That did not put me off from starting to research whether actual unions did exist in Britain and elsewhere.

The results of this research have led to me publishing a number of papers in peer-reviewed journals, a couple of books chapters, and three books (published in 2006, 2012 and 2016). The latest of this is Sex Worker Unionisation: Global Developments, Challenges and Possibilities.

The book examines the issues of power, material interests and ideology where sex workers – principally exotic dancers, porn actors and prostitutes – have become one of the newer and more unusual groups of workers in recent years to seek the protection of unions. Unionising sex workers typifies many of the sharpest challenges for labour unionism, namely, organising self-employed workers with no regular or fixed place of work, high levels of turnover and, effectively, zero hour contracts – as well as all within greatly expanding labour markets due to migration. However, unlike any other workers, sex workers also face moral opprobrium from within and without the labour union movement as a result if the work they do so there is an additional hurdle to be overcome in the process of unionisation.

Yet despite these challenges sex worker activists have succeeded in persuading fellow workers to unionise (either through joining existing unions or creating new ones) in the thirty countries I studied.

The spurs to unionisation have been the realisation that despite surface appearances sex work is work much like any other work and that sex workers as workers need and want rights at work. This is because 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, being forced to work long hours without breaks etcetera. And there are also some different problems which most workers don’t have to face like 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 is that sex workers have wanted to add a political voice to their new-found economic voice. Consequently, sex workers have used unionisation to articulate their voice in the public arena over the issue of the legal reform of the position of sex work.

But unionisation has been no easy task. The numbers involved have been small, progress limited in making substantive gains and many organisations 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. Formal collective bargaining has taken place in Australia, Britain, Germany and the United States while individual representation has also taken place through internal grievance and disciplinary and external legal processes in many more countries. Political representation has involved campaigning and lobbying on reforming the legal regulation of sex work. Informal bargaining, assisted by legal recourse, has also taken place, especially with regard to fees levied to work for exotic dancers and their campaign to be accorded employed status in the United States.

After initial successes, energy levels has waned, organisational development stalled and many sex worker unions have folded or attempts by existing unions to organise sex workers have been wound up. Along the way there have been some almighty and bitter internal disputes amongst sex workers over whether managers should be members and which groups of sex workers should be prioritised over others.

Yet despite these internal and external problems when one organisation has folded another has emerged to take its place and carry on the battle for representation. This demonstrates the continuing demand for collective interest representation and the willingness of the activists to step up to the plate to provide that representation.

And, it is here that the notion of occupational unionism may have some particular purchase. Unions which organise at the level of the occupation, rather than the workplace, seek to establish a floor of terms and conditions with capital (owners, operators) across and throughout workplaces because the work their members do is peripatetic and of a short duration. Sex workers in brothels and lapdancing clubs approximate more closely to this situation that any other.

Of course, occupational labour unionism has to be based on there being an occupation and one which has elements of a profession to it (such as some degree of regulation to entry to the occupation and of behaviour within the occupation). Seeking to establish occupational rights and status is no easy feat and may take a long time to do. But given that the industry structure and conditions of both brothels and lapdancing are unlikely to be subject to significant changes, the suggestion has much merit to it.

For more information or to order a copy of Sex Worker Unionisation: Global Developments, Challenges and Possibilities (ISBN 9781137320131, pp240, 2016) by Gregor Gall , published by Palgrave, go to

About Gregor Gall

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford. He is Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and wrote the report mentioned above. Prof Gall was previously Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Stirling and Research Professor of Industrial Relations and Director of the Centre for Research in Employment Studies, University of Hertfordshire. He is also Visiting Lecturer, International Labour & Trade Union Studies, Ruskin College, Oxford, and Visiting Lecturer, Labor Education Program, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois, Urbana.