28 Feb 2023

The strippers fighting for better work rights

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 February 2023

A dispute over contracts has given the public a rare glimpse into the employment practices of local strip clubs. The Detail looks into why a group of strippers has decided to fight back after their pay was cut.

A protester addresses the crowd outside Calendar Girls in Wellington.

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

The Calendar Girls dispute

In early February, a group of strippers working at Calendar Girls strip club in Wellington raised issues with club management about their new contracts.

The 2023 contracts increased the club's share of their earnings leaving the strippers with 50 percent instead of the 60 percent they had received previously.

The group wanted to collectively negotiate with the club for a better deal.

"The response of the management was firing 19 of the girls," says Stuff Wellington reporter Erin Gourley.

The group of 19 strippers had their contracts terminated by Calendar Girls management through a Facebook post telling them to clear out their lockers.

This group has since formed a campaign under the banner 'Fired Up Stilettos' advocating for better workplace conditions for strippers.

"Even though strippers are independent contractors, they actually don't have a lot of the rights that go with that, because the contracts they have with strip clubs tend to be pretty punitive. They can be fined for things that are quite arbitrary, like rudeness, swearing, inappropriate behaviour," says Gourley.

"It's really an industry-wide problem where they have these contracts that the strip clubs give out, and [strippers] pretty much sign them because there is no room for negotiation."

On February 18, Fired Up Stilettos held a protest on Dixon Street in Wellington outside Calendar Girls. The picketers danced, held signs and handed out pamphlets to supporters on the street.

Green MP Jan Logie attended the protest to hear the strippers' concerns, as well as touring rock'n'roll singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

New Zealand's stripping workforce

Vixen Temple, an activist, sex worker and former stripper, says the dispute at Calendar Girls didn't surprise her.

Stripping as an independent contractor offers workers the freedom to pick and choose when and how much they work, Vixen says.

But she found that strip clubs in New Zealand often placed demands on workers that went above and beyond their contracts - setting prices for services, requiring strippers to go and purchase uniforms, and maintaining a shift roster.

Most strip clubs in New Zealand operate by taking a percentage of strippers' earnings in exchange for providing a venue for the strippers to work in. It is not unusual for clubs to make more money by issuing fines to strippers for breaking rules: not being fully naked by the end of their second song, loitering in the changing rooms, or being late to shifts.

Other strip club workers, such as bar staff and security, are often on employment contracts, but the strippers are managed as contractors.

"We have no power at all to negotiate the contracts," she says.

"If you do everything they say, and you suck up to them, they treat you well. But the second you start to go 'hang on a minute, I don't feel good about the way you're treating me', they turn around and they somehow make you feel like you're the problem - 'no one else complains, it's just you having the issues'!"

Contractors vs employees

Whether Fired Up Stilettos have any right to challenge their conditions at Calendar Girls depends on whether they are contractors or employees, explains labour law lecturer Dawn Duncan.

In New Zealand, all employees are legally entitled to a set of minimum working conditions, such as the minimum wage, annual and sick leave, and access to special dispute resolution mechanisms through the employment law jurisdiction. Independent contractors don't have these rights.

While the strippers were all hired as independent contractors, they could actually be employees in the eyes of the law, she says.

The strippers will need to seek a status determination from the Employment Court.

Duncan says there has been a recent focus on industries involved in "sham contracting", where businesses hire some staff as contractors to avoid giving them the benefits of employment. A group of Uber drivers were recently able to prove in the Supreme Court that they were really employees of the global ride-sharing app, not contractors.

Changing societal attitudes will encourage workers in fringe industries to push harder for their rights, says Duncan.

"After we saw the legalisation of prostitution, that helped, I think, to take away some of the stigma from the sex industry generally.

"Also with younger generations, there seems to be a lot less willingness to accept poor working conditions than we've seen for some decades."

Hear more about the strippers' fight for better working conditions in the full podcast episode.

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