19 Feb 2023

Calendar Girls dancers take employment campaign to Parliament

3:13 pm on 19 February 2023
A protester addresses the crowd outside Calendar Girls in Wellington.

A protester addresses the crowd outside Calendar Girls in Wellington. Photo: Supplied

Calendar Girls dancers told not to come back to work are picketing outside of the strip club and lobbying Parliament over their rights as independent contractors.

Nineteen dancers working for Wellington's Calendar Girls were told not to come back to work via a Facebook post after requesting better contracts.

Setting up a strip pole opposite Calendar Girls, about 60 picketers danced while giving out pamphlets and chocolate. The goal, dancer Blake said, was to "gather new contractor rights and legislation".

"Some of these clubs have really bad management and a culture of bullying people. We at least want to make a small step in changing that."

On 30 January, 35 dancers from Wellington's Calendar Girls decided to collectivise. Their new 2023 independent contract was "manipulative" says Melanie*, one of the affected dancers, and needed changes. The dancers asked Calendar Girls management for two things: clear income records and a 60 percent cut of earnings.

"A group of dancers had begun writing a letter requesting that we have clear income records given to us, because we weren't being given the correct receipts in our pay packets," Melanie said.

"Nobody had a clear idea of their income, which is a problem when you're trying to prove it to IRD."

Currently, Calendar Girls dancers may pay up to 56 percent of earnings back to their employer. "Sometimes you just wouldn't get paid at all," Melanie said.

"Dancers collect tips in Calendar Girls money from patrons and all private bookings get paid through the till. Dancers then hand in their tips at the end of the shift and get 80 percent back. The dancers' 'cut' of the booking price also goes on their account, and gets paid out to them the following week. So say a dancer gets a customer to book a $150 private dance, only $75 of that goes to the dancer."

An email asking for changes was sent. The next day, over half of those dancers were told by the proprietor via a Facebook group post to "clear out their lockers". The proprietor uses a pseudonym on Facebook.

"We took that as being fired, because that's exactly what it sounds like. It's so obviously a direct retaliation to the letter," Melanie said.

A protester makes her point outside Calendar Girls Wellington.

A protester makes her point outside Calendar Girls Wellington. Photo: Supplied

"She said that management had been intentionally ambiguous. Dancers went in on Thursday to clear out their lockers and "had this big long chat with a manager - she said 'nobody is fired, but you're not allowed to work'."

The manager was verbally abusive, Melanie said, but promised to set up a meeting. The meeting never happened, she said.

Immediately after the proprietor's post asking the dancers to clear their lockers, his account made another Facebook post seeking accommodation for what appeared to be their replacements.

In a statement, Calendar Girls management said 12 of the 19 dancers asked to clear their locker had already moved away or stopped working for the club.

"The club only has a limited amount of lockers and needs them for contractors [to] do weekly shifts as most of the other seven only do a day here and there bar one who was trespassed. And all contractors were told they can reapply online anytime."

'Nobody told to reapply'

Any contractors unhappy with their payment were "welcome anytime to discuss it," they said.

But Melanie said none of the group had stopped working for the club before the post and nobody had been told to reapply.

Calendar Girls Wellington duty manager Lorna said she encouraged "people to come in, talk to our dancers working here and see the story for themselves. Ask as a customer if they feel happy, unsafe, or bullied".

Crowds gather outside Calendar Girls in Wellington.

Crowds gather outside Calendar Girls in Wellington. Photo: Supplied

"I think that there's a lot of misinformation out there. It feels to me that [the picketers] are just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks."

Taking the case to Parliament

The 19 dancers have formed a group called the Fired Up Stilettos and are seeking improved industry standards and independent contractor protection.

The ultimate goal is to have an official body that can vet strip club contracts and investigate complaints. The group is meeting with Green MP Jan Logie in March.

Green MP Jan Logie lends her support to the dancers and their right to employment protections.

Green MP Jan Logie lends her support to the dancers and their right to employment protections. Photo: Supplied

It would be ideal to have someone in government who has prior experience working in strip clubs, Melanie said.

"Nobody really does know about the industry, and they never really have. That's what's got to change - an understanding of how it works. What we really want, and what I think we're going to get, is someone in Parliament who has to look at the contracts that clubs draw up.

"Dancers should know whether they're an improved contract or not. The clubs aren't held accountable by anyone... apart from us, theoretically. We should have the power because we are the commodity, but we don't."

Melanie hopes to mobilise dancers across the country "to get as many in that meeting as possible".

"It's open to anybody who is a dancer, has been a dancer in the past, and wants to see change in the industry. We're drawing up a petition at the moment," she said.

Fired Up Stilettos has been assembling a following on social media. Its campaign has raised over $13,000 since the launch.

"The problem stems from the ambiguity of our roles as independent contractors despite being overwhelmingly treated like employees," the group said.

"Nationwide, dancer contracts are predatory by nature and are riddled with fines, retainer bonds and clauses forbidding work at competing venues and media engagement.

"Not standing against these serious workplace issues out of fear perpetuates a vicious cycle of worsening exploitation."

Law and order

Unite Union legal officer Lauren McGee believed the 19 dancers were subjected to "an unlawful termination" under the contract they had with Calendar Girls.

"Employers can not unilaterally change the terms and conditions of an agreement and then instantly dismiss their workers for attempting to engage in a discussion about those changes," she said.

"Calendar Girls is not above the law. There are basic rights in New Zealand to adhere to, clauses in an agreement to abide by and contract law must always be followed."

Hired by strip clubs as independent contractors, dancers have the right to negotiate their payments. As independent contractors, however, they lack the protection of the Employment Relations Act.

"There is currently a gap in the legislative framework for many types of contracting work when it comes to protections for the workers, enforcement and monitoring mechanisms, and avenues for redress," McGee said.

"These clubs country-wide exert an immense and unfair level of control over their workers and have continued to profit from illegal fines of their workers with virtually no repercussions. The strip club industry (as well as many others) relies on it being a difficult, expensive and individual battle for these workers to stand up for and enforce their rights as contractors every time."

"I urge the New Zealand public to get behind these ladies and to get behind improvements to the protections for contractors in our legal systems."

Aotearoa NZ Sex Workers' Collective founder and national coordinator Dame Catherine Healy said there were many coercive practices across the industry. If they were properly scrutinised, many would not hold up under law.

"We feel committed to finding a solution - the dancers are inspirational."

A representative of Stripper's United, a US strippers union, said firing experienced dancers led to further exploitation of inexperienced newcomers.

"The concerning thing about this is that when they mass-fire dancers that have been there for so long, they are usually the dancers who take baby strippers under their wing. So when the experienced dancers are fired, they're replaced by dancers with little to no experience; they're easy to exploit, and easy to take advantage of. It's deeply concerning for the safety of strippers.

"Being a stripper, our customers and the general public can be very against us. When you feel like management isn't on your side, it adds a layer of stress on top of a job that's already so stressful and vulnerable. Management should be the people rallying with us, not against us. We need to feel like they're in our court. It's anxiety inducing and impacts your ability to make a living."

*Names have been changed.