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Anti-sex workers’ rights activism in the trades union movement

Unison are debating a motion that defines prostitution as violence against women. This is a comment from former UNISON member, now free-lance researcher.

As a former member of UNISON and active campaigner for the rights of trade unionists, I was appalled to read that some members of a trade union which has had a record for challenging discrimination and encouraging self-organisation for under-represented groups are proposing policy which is detrimental to their sisters and brothers in another union branch.

My concerns relate to the ‘Demand change’ motion from the Women’s conference, which has serious implications for a group of workers who are, through this motion, effectively being denied their right to lead their own struggle to improve their terms and conditions. The ‘Demand change’ agenda and the sentiments behind it are based on misinformation and the motion contains misguided and contradictory proposals. On the one hand, it is calling for criminalisation of indoor sex work, yet on the other it claims to be concerned for the welfare of people working in the sex industry. In its calls to the government to adopt the ‘Nordic model’, it is ignoring evidence which shows that this approach can have negative consequences for the safety of sex workers and reinforces their oppression. Moreover, in its paternalistic approach, the motion is denying the rights to self-organisation of sex workers themselves, who have formed a properly constituted branch of the GMB union established specifically to enable sex workers to fight for their human, labour and civil rights.

The motion itself, and a recent UNISON press release (Sex trafficking surge during Olympics, 22/02/2010) contain a number of inaccurate assertions and I was very surprised to see UNISON associating itself with these misconceptions. For example, the press release states that ‘The average age women become prostitutes is just 13’. There are several research studies which show the average age to be much higher, particularly in indoor sex work in the UK. Similarly, the connection between large sporting events and trafficking for the purposes of forced prostitution has been shown to be based often on misinformation and poor data, as well as driven by anti-prostitution discourses. While there is substantial exploitation in the sex industry, not only of women but also male and transgender sex workers, there is also considerable evidence to demonstrate that many people who enter the industry make an informed choice, albeit based on their economic circumstances. Moreover, there is no right enshrined in UK legislation, as the motion claims, for ‘men to buy women’: what is purchased, not only by men but also by some women, is the sexual labour of women, men and transgender people.

Apart from the statistical inaccuracies, which are to be found commonly in any anti-prostitution propaganda currently being circulated, I find it more worrying that, in today’s trade union movement, the concerns expressed by a group of workers in one trade union branch appear to be ignored by workers in another union who find their work morally repugnant. In no other industry, as far as I am aware, are trade union members denied solidarity because other trade unionists disapprove of their work.

On the one hand, it is argued that women working in the sex industry are exploited and abused. On the other, however, if the women, men and transgender people working in the industry try to self-organise, the very people who describe them as exploited seem to wish to deny them a voice. It appears that if sex workers do not agree to being ‘saved’ they are seen as not worthy of support. Surely the potential for exploitation of workers in any industry is a reason for supporting their struggle and listening to what they say will improve their conditions.

The motion is right to say that sex work is not like any other form of work, but the main reason for this is that no other form of work has the same degree of opprobrium and stigma attached to it by members of society with their own moral agenda, including, apparently, some trade unionists. Trade union members do not normally see themselves as having a right to impose their own terms, based on their prejudices, on the rights of other groups of workers, yet it appears that with sex work it is seen as perfectly permissible to do so.

The trade union movement has an opportunity to promote the rights of people working in the sex industry and to help to reduce the stigmatisation and social exclusion experienced by sex workers. But in order to do this, rather than taking a paternalistic approach which denies agency and choice to the very people working in the industry, who are best placed to speak about their terms and conditions, it should be showing them solidarity. Sex workers are the ones who know firsthand about the potential for and extent of exploitation and coercion in their industry and through their trade union they should be leading any campaign to increase their safety and welfare.

As a result of reading the wording of the ‘Demand change’ motion and the UNISON press release sent out earlier, I felt compelled to write to the General Secretary of UNISON expressing my concerns. At a time of economic crisis, when trade union members should be working together to combat the worst effects of any forthcoming cuts in services and jobs, it seems particularly disappointing to find that some trade unionists are more concerned with pressing their own moral agenda than offering support to others in their own struggle for a better and safer working environment.

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This entry was posted on 16 June, 2010 by in Uncategorized.
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