12 Mar 2023

Why Aotearoa's strippers are so fired up and standing out

11:14 am on 12 March 2023
Strippers and supporters at Parliament.

Strippers and supporters at Parliament. Photo: Fired Up Stilettos / Supplied

In February, a group of 19 strippers working at Calendar Girls strip club in Wellington had their contracts unlawfully terminated. Campaigning under the name 'Fired Up Stilettos', the dancers have taken their petition to Parliament in a historic first, lobbying against what they see as systemic pervasive injustices in the adult entertainment industry.

Speaking to representatives such as Green MPs Jan Logie and Chlöe Swarbrick, the Stilettos took turns voicing their stories and appealing for improved labour rights for contractors. Representatives from Equity New Zealand and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, and Dame Catherine Healy from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, were also there

"Everybody in Aotearoa deserves to be respected at work and deserves fair working conditions," said Laura, a Masters graduate and dancer of five years.

"These conditions are not associated with what we do for work, but rather speak to the actions of those who hold power over our labour."

They presented a petition that would cover independent contractors from all lines of work - in plumbing, IT, building, etcetera - but focus primarily on better conditions for dancers in strip clubs, who have fallen through the cracks of labour welfare legislation.

To "come out" as a worker in the adult entertainment industry, Laura said, is to risk your livelihood, as evidenced by the dancers who could not physically attend Parliament without risking their jobs.

To do so involves an increased threat of discrimination, "socially, in employment, in banking, in housing, and through our freedom of movement internationally. If we have children, then we must also consider whether they will suffer consequences by association."

Strip clubs are aware of these barriers, Laura said, and exploit them.

"It is not an easy job, and we are not uneducated and unskilled workers. I challenge anyone who holds these ideals to work a 10-hour shift in our eight-inch heels. I bet you can't."

Calling for a regulatory body

Dancer Ginger said individual contractor negotiation, while legal on paper, is not viable in the strip club industry.

Throughout her seven years of dancing, Ginger said workers have been fired for negotiating contracts.

Ginger said she was accused of loitering and fined $200 for taking her entitled 15-minute break - her rent money for that week out the window.

"Michael Hill salespeople are not having half their money seized for taking a break they are entitled to. Kiosk people at Farmers are not penalised for eating lunch. Why am I?

"My father is dying. I found out an hour before my shift started, and honestly felt I had very little choice but to go to work anyway."

"I want to be treated with dignity, like a person by my employer, and I don't think that is too much to ask this Parliament to help us achieve."

Seeking legal help

When strippers experience violence or labour rights violations, said Renee, they are told to contact a lawyer. But strippers who do this rarely achieve justice.

In 2018, a stripper working at Calendar Girls Christchurch was unlawfully fired via Facebook.

"Sound familiar?" Renee quipped - that is how the Fired Up Stilettos dancers found out too.

The stripper challenged the status of her independence, but the case went against her.

In February 2022, a stripper working at Dreamgirls raised concerns around their working conditions. They were told by WorkSafe to raise the issue with their employer - the alleged perpetrator of the issues.

In 2020, a stripper experienced sexual violence while working in a Dunedin venue. When Vixen - the stripper - took the case to court, the defendant's lawyer said, "there's a degree of consent to touching in that environment."

The Crown advised her to take a plea bargain and skip the trial, reasoning that the jury would look at her line of work and dismiss her as "just a stripper".

Protesters fight for better treatment of strippers in the workplace.

Protesters fight for better treatment of strippers in the workplace. Photo: Fired Up Stilettos / Supplied

Vixen has been approached by other assaulted strippers, asking whether they should take their cases to court.

"I want to tell them yes. But right now, that would be a lie."

Those who are meant to protect workers, Renee said, have consistently failed them.

"That is why we're standing here today, taking matters into our own hands."

Strip club management accused of 'psychological abuse'

Skylar has been in the industry for 12 years. In that time, she's seen pay cuts trickle down from 80 percent, to 60, and now as low as 39.6 percent for some work. Yet, raising concerns leads to fear of punishment.

"I've seen abuse, assault and even rape swept under the rug under threat of having one's income taken away," she said.

Dancers are required to deposit a bond, and management have full discretion to keep that bond money, another dancer said. They are given an extensive list of fines for breaking rules, including the risk of losing $200 due to "rudeness" or $50 for "misuse of cell phone".

In one of Skylar's examples, management threatened to fine her $1000 for dancing at a stag do, which was considered breaking a non-competition clause. In an act of "goodwill", they made all the other dancers take a vote as to whether she should be fined or not, and was only fined half. She worked to lose money that night.

One dancer described "exploitation as a requisite for success," with dancers risking injury, insult, sexual assault, ostracisation and illness in order to retain work.

It was psychological abuse, said dancer Molly, with clubs breeding a culture of fear and a divided workforce which is easy to control. Dancers are paid by management to nark on other dancers in group chats, she said, and spread rumours threatening to "out" strippers to friends and family.

Working a day job for a women's refuge, and for police, Molly does "not use the term abuse lightly".

"It is never easy to escape abuse. It's harder when you're financially dependent on your abuser, which the club ensures you are by including non-competition clauses in your contracts.

"It's harder when you have no way to talk about it openly because you have been isolated by social stigma. It's harder when you risk losing your income for even showing an interest in anything that could be considered 'unionising'."

The 'New Zealand Model'

Bianca Beebe - sex worker, public health researcher, and co-chair of the Oregon Sex Workers' Committee - has been fighting to make Oregon the first United State to decriminalised sex work, following the footsteps laid by New Zealand's 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA).

Aotearoa set the international standards for sex workers' labour rights 20 years ago, she said, and the rest of the world is still struggling to catch up.

"I am consistently struck by how sex workers in every country in which I've organised know about what we're doing here in New Zealand. Decriminalisation [of sex work] is frequently dubbed 'The New Zealand Model'.

"As far as I'm aware, every organisation across the globe led by sex workers for sex workers' labour rights tries to learn from what we accomplished here 20 years ago.

"The movement initiated by Fired Up Stilettos demonstrates both that the decriminalisation of sex work has been an overwhelming success, and it also reveals how much further we have to go."

Beebe worked at Calendar Girls years ago, but now works as an independent escort. She laughed at the irony of how much safer and legally protected she is being alone in a hotel room with a strange man over any stripper in a New Zealand club.

"Sex workers are not inherently vulnerable. We are made vulnerable by policy that allows others to control us.

"I feel the urgency of this situation not just because my comrades in Aotearoa deserve to work free of exploitation, but because I know firsthand the profound global impacts we'll see if we get this right.

"We have been contacted by dancers in clubs throughout Australia, the US, and the UK, who are experiencing the exact same struggles with management, and waiting to see how New Zealand, the decrim country, will respond. Will our Parliament kick the can of independent contractors' labour rights down the road, or will it do its job and pass innovative legislation that solves contemporary problems?

"I implore members of Parliament to once again rise to the occasion, and show the world how it's done."

The petition

The Fired Up Stilettos petition requests "the House of Representatives establish the right of adult entertainment workers to collectively bargain while maintaining our independent contractor status, outlaw all fines and bonds between employers and contractors, and establish a nationwide mandatory maximum of 20 percent that an employer can take from a contractor's profits".

"Contractors in adult entertainment experience widespread labour exploitation, not due to the sexual nature of our work but rather because of the lack of legal protections offered to workers who are not employees. Strippers are especially vulnerable to exploitation because we depend on a venue, which has resulted in a culture of bullying, income theft, violations of contract law, and sometimes outright labour trafficking. We need nationwide intervention to stop these exploitative practices."

The dancers did not want to attack strip club management, they said, but forge a mutual relationship with them.

Their next step, in the meantime, involves catching up on a lot of sleep.

"We're so tired," Renee laughed.

"Thank you so much for being present and for listening to our voices. It's been a long time."

- RNZ has corrected a line in this story to clarify a defendant's lawyer said "there's a degree of consent to touching in that environment", rather than the judge in the case.

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