Strippers of the world unite

Sex workers have finally won the right - taken for granted by the rest of the workforce - to join a union. Clare Rudebeck talks to table dancers at a London club and asks them how it's affected their lives
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"I love my job. Everyone's relaxed. There's no bitchiness. We all work together as a team," says 27-year-old Frances. "I was sick of being stuck in dead-end retail jobs, earning bad money. Why do that when I can come here, earn a good wage and go home happy?"

Minutes later, she is dancing on stage at Majingo's, a table-dancing club in London Docklands. Twirling around the spotlit pole, she undoes her dress so that her top half is naked. Then, as the song comes to an end, she pulls up her skirt, showing her bottom. Afterwards, she puts her dress back on, smiles and sits down to carry on chatting with some of the other table dancers who work at the club.

With its poles, low lights and embarrassed early-evening clientele, Majingo's looks like any other table-dancing club. However, it is one of only three British clubs to have recognised a trade union. Frances and the 25 other table dancers who work there are protected by a strict code of conduct. If they are treated badly, they can get on the phone to the GMB, a general trade union with 700,000 members.

Sex workers won the right to become members of the GMB last year. Since then, 150 prostitutes, escorts, strippers, chat-line operators, sex-shop assistants, table dancers, porn stars and glamour models have joined. Last week, the GMB congress in Blackpool voted overwhelmingly to call for a national debate on the legal rights and working conditions of sex workers.

Until now, there were few ways in which sex workers could protect themselves from exploitation and violence. "Because the industry is semi-legal, there's a lot of violence," says Ana Lopes, who represents sex workers in the GMB. "The press only reports the really nasty cases. But rape is very common and often the police don't take it seriously because the victim is a sex worker."

Eight prostitutes have been murdered in Glasgow since 1991. In early January, the dismembered body of Elizabeth Valad, a London prostitute, was found in a wheelie-bin by a tramp foraging for food. In the past few weeks, Lopes has been contacted by a prostitute who was raped at work. "She had already been to the police, but they didn't do anything about it," says Lopes.

Working in a table-dancing club is by no means as dangerous as working as a prostitute. But sex workers do not just need protection from being killed or raped. Until now, they have had no defence against a list of abuses that would have landed other employers in an industrial tribunal - poor pay, wrongful dismissal, sexual harassment and verbal abuse, among others. "We are campaigning for labour rights and for our work to be seen as legitimate work," says Lopes. "It's not about morality or whether sex work is right or wrong. It's about sex workers being able to work safely and have basic rights."

Before Majingo's, Frances worked in several other table-dancing clubs. "Customers would be so rude to you," she says. "At table-dancing clubs, there is a strict no-touching rule, but some of the customers would put their hands on you anyway."

"Some clubs let them get away with it," says Bridget, who also works as a table-dancer at Majingo's. While working at another table-dancing club in London, she saw several girls dismissed on the whim of their employer.

Majingo's code of conduct aims to stamp out these kinds of abuses. It sets down exactly what table dancers can and can't do, covering tricky areas such as drinking while on duty. The code states: "The management insists on moderate drinking at all times. However, do not refuse a drink when offered. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DRINK IT." The code also prohibits table dancers from chewing gum and from dating anyone who works at the club. If a dancer has not broken the code, she cannot be sacked. There are also codes of conduct for the club's management and clientele. If a table dancer feels that her labour rights have been breached in any way, she can call the solicitors at the GMB.

The club's general manager, Stephen Sussams, decided to draw up the code when he opened Majingo's in 2002. "I know it sounds funny, but prior to starting the club, I had never been to a table-dancing club," he says. "When I started visiting other clubs to research the venture, I discovered that the dancers who worked in them had myriad complaints. They were treated in a manner that I wouldn't want to treat people."

The norms of the table-dancing business seem to work against the dancers. They pay to work in the club. The club pays them nothing. At Majingo's, the fee is between £45 and £65 per night. The dancers must then recoup this fee by performing fully-nude dances for customers in a private "lounge area". A nude dance earns them £10 before 9pm and £20 afterwards. They earn nothing for dancing on stage. "It's their shop window, if you like," says Sussams.

But it can be a lucrative line of work. "If you want to earn the money you can, if you work hard enough," Frances confirms. However, no boss or job is perfect. Sussams stays in the room while I interview Frances and Bridget, and neither woman seems to know very much about their trade-union rights. "I only found out about the GMB today," says Bridget, who has worked at the club for two weeks. "But I am definitely going to join."

One person who is very conscious of the value of the GMB membership is 36-year-old Sally, who is the "house mother" at the club. She is responsible for managing the dancers. She organises their rotas and makes sure they're on time for work. "And if someone screams for some hairspray in the dressing room, I'm there with the hairspray," she says. Sally has worked in table-dancing clubs on and off since she was 23. Initially she was a dancer before moving into management.

During her career, Sally has witnessed or heard reports of horrific treatment of table dancers and other strippers by their bosses, including being intimidated into sex, and physical assault. "But it's getting a lot better," she says. "Girls in this industry used to be treated almost like cattle." Increasingly, strippers have started to protect themselves by sharing information about bad employers and putting it out on the "strippers' grapevine". "If a club treats girls badly, it takes about six months before that club will find that it can't get any girls to work there," Sally says.

Ana Lopes hopes that she can turn this community spirit into a political movement. She became interested in labour rights for sex workers after taking a job as a chat-line operator in 2000. "I was doing a PhD in anthropology and I wanted to find a part-time job. I thought that working for a chat line would be interesting. And it was interesting, I really liked it."

However, she soon suspected that she was being underpaid for her work. "When I started, I was being paid £5 per hour and, in comparison to other jobs where you spend your day on the phone, that seemed very little," she says. "I didn't know if my boss was taking advantage of me. That's when I needed to call someone and ask about the basic salary in this line of work." But there was no one to call. So she set about forming her own organisation, the International Union of Sex Workers, which was incorporated into the GMB last year.

At first, the group was not so much a union as a grassroots organisation, demanding the decriminalisation of prostitution and full labour rights for all sex workers. "We want to destigmatise the sex industry," she says. "If that happens, there would be much less violence against our workers." She draws a parallel with the gay rights movement. "Since the laws against homosexual relationships were lifted, homosexuality has been much more acceptable. As a result, homophobic crime, though it still happens, is seen as much more unacceptable by society and the police."

Moving into the mainstream may be a slow process. The table dancers at Majingo's don't accept the tag "sex worker", pointing out that they do not have sex with their clients. But Lopes and her fellow union members are gaining confidence. Last week, she was the first sex worker to address the GMB congress. Next week, she will speak at the Glastonbury Festival.

And, during the build-up to the war in Iraq, she and a few other union members staged a protest - a rare example of sex workers speaking out on public issues. The protest involved 15 sex workers, including Lopes, dancing in the street outside the London sex shop, Coco de Mer. The women wore gas masks and nothing else. Their naked bodies were painted with anti-war slogans.

"The fact that we were naked obviously helped to attract media interest to our protest," says Lopes. "But it also has to do with pride - we're not ashamed of our bodies or our work. There's no way to hide it: we are about selling sex and sexual fantasies. We just want people to accept it and let us do our job in safety."