A group of strippers has delivered a petition to Parliament calling for legislation to grant sex workers labour rights that are the same as those given to independent contractors.
Nineteen strippers were fired from Calendar Girls Wellington via a Facebook post in February 2023 for attempting to collectively bargain for fair pay and legal contracts.
A year on, more have been fired from establishments across the motu for speaking out.
Sex work activist group The Fired Up Stilettos (FUS) has now delivered a petition to Parliament; attached was a 52-page-long paper which called for legislation to grant sex workers the same labour rights as those given to independent contractors.
Last week, FUS members and allies rallied on Parliament grounds where pole dancing, chanting and first-hand accounts of the industry were hard to ignore.
Fired Up Stilettos member Margot Embargot kicked off the chanting dressed in her work clothes; fishnets, eight-inch heels and heart-shaped sunglasses - all while addressing the stigma sex workers face in Aotearoa.
Labour and Green MPs with Margot Embargot outside Parliament last week. Photo / RNZ, Ellie Franco
MPs in attendance included Labour’s Camilla Bellich and Rachel Brooking, and the Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick, Scott Willis and Ricardo Menéndez March.
Menéndez March took to the mic and said sex work was work.
“Everyone deserves to have a safe working environment, and our legislation should enable workers to collectively fight for those rights,” Menéndez March said.
“We have a political system that is patriarchal, and that patronising approach has prevented looking at this issue as a safety and a workers’ rights issue.”
Signed and submitted with more than 7000 signatures, The Fired Up Stilettos’ requests include allowing adult entertainers to collectively bargain while maintaining independent contractor status, outlawing fines and bonds imposed by adult entertainment businesses, and establishing the maximum percentage a venue can take from a worker’s earnings.
On average, strip club owners take a minimum 50 per cent cut from their dancers and impose illegal “sick day” fines worth more than what strippers make on a typical night.
Labour workplace relations and safety spokesperson Bellich said she was appalled by the conditions adult entertainers worked under.
“The taking of money, for no reason, is not something that should be tolerated in our society,” Bellich said.
“Fining people for standing up to management, and for standing up for their rights, should not be allowed.”
With no legal standing, the bonds imposed by strip clubs work to secure the strippers’ loyalty to the businesses.
Vixen Temple outside Parliament last week. Photo / RNZ, Ellie Franco
Dancer and Fired Up Stilettos member Vixen Temple told the crowd on Parliament lawn about the time she was fined $200 for taking a day off work.
Temple had just been diagnosed with PTSD caused by the sexual abuse she said she had faced while working at a club in Dunedin.
“They profit off our trauma. They traumatise us and then they get to make money off us. It’s sick, it’s vicious, and it needs to stop,” Temple said.
“It can stop, and it will stop if this petition gets taken seriously.”
Another dancer known as Lacey Day was working in the South Island when the FUS movement began last year.
Lacey Day. Photo / RNZ, Ellie Franco
Day explained how club owners threatened dancers across the country for speaking up.
“We were told that there was a group chat for all club owners and that when girls screw up, they get blacklisted,” Day said.
“We were told if we followed the Fired Up Stilettos pages, our name would get put on that list with the other girls because: ‘those girls will never be able to work in New Zealand again as dancers’.
“Funnily enough that was in a club where I can tell you we did not get fines. So, imagine what it’s like for the clubs that do.”
Margot Embargot and Vixen Temple. Photo / RNZ / Ellie Franco
So what’s stopping strippers from pooling their savings and starting their own businesses?
Day said councils played a major role.
“There is a limit of how many sex work establishments can be in a city at one time, and a lot of those capacities have been hit,” Day said.
“In places down south specifically, one particular person will open up a strip club, they will open up a brothel, and they will open up a swinger’s club.
“That fills up the quota that will be approved for that city and sometimes that region.
“Hypothetically, if we were to pool together all of our savings - regardless of whatever I’m saving that for - I wouldn’t get approval.”
Sex workers pay taxes
In a telephone interview, former Calendar Girls dancer Cleo said all clubs were paying taxes through their businesses, as were the dancers who worked for them.
“It’s really disappointing when we’re not getting supported through policy and legislation that protects us,” Cleo said.
Despite the decriminalisation of sex work in 2003, the bureaucracy needed to ensure the protection of adult entertainers’ rights as workers had fallen behind, she said.
“We’ve contacted WorkSafe, the Commerce Commission and all the different forums or agencies available to people seeking justice or resolutions to workplace matters. And we don’t even get a response half the time.
“If we do get a response, they just tell us they won’t investigate it and won’t even tell us why.
“So why are we even paying tax if we’re not even getting the support are taxes are supposed to provide?”
The Fired Up Stilettos delivered the petition to Parliament February 3. Photo / RNZ, Ellie Franco
Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Brooke van Velden said in a statement many people chose to be contractors and appreciated benefits of being in a contracting relationship.
But: “The legal status quo has created uncertainty for contractors and businesses. That’s because contractors are able to challenge their employment status in the Employment Court if they believe they should be classified as employees. If contractors have been offered benefits normally reserved for employees, the Employment Court may rule they are employees.
“One of my priorities is to explore a range of options to ensure businesses and workers who explicitly agree to a contracting arrangement have certainty about the nature of that relationship.
“Where contracts are perceived to be unfair or exploitative, I would encourage workers and businesses to access MBIE’s dispute resolution system to come to a mutually agreeable solution.”
Workplace safety in the adult entertainment industry
Other speakers at the protest described harrowing stories of their bodies being abused by others on the job, and authorities dropped allegations upon review.
Day was coerced into stripping on her 18th birthday while heavily intoxicated.
She was dancing and celebrating as a customer in a Dunedin bar when the owner watched her from afar and eventually approached, asking her to perform.
Lacey said she was routinely assaulted by her management for more than nine months afterwards.
“This is the only job where sexual abuse is expected and normalised,” Day said.
Day eventually moved to Wellington where she worked as a dancer in Mermaids and Dream Girls before leaving to search for other jobs.
She said nobody, not even hospitality roles, would hire her because of the stigma behind stripping.
Cleo has been dancing for eight years and said stripping helped built her confidence, but also created moments for people who needed to be seen.
“With lap dances, sometimes people actually just need to feel like someone’s holding space for them,” Cleo said.
“Physical touch is something a lot of people are really starved of.
“You’d be dealing with people that might be autistic or have some kind of disability and they’d feel a lot of satisfaction to have been recognised by a beautiful woman.
“You can leave feeling like you’ve given someone a really intimate, special experience when they might not necessarily find that easy in other avenues of their lives.”
She said there are many ways to find joy in the job.
“Whether it’s bringing intimacy into someone’s life, just doing a cool stage performance and the crowd enjoying it or making someone’s stag-do a fun and monumental experience.
“I really enjoy these aspects of stripping because I’m fundamentally a people-person so I like to spend time around others.”
Calendar Girls Wellington was approached for comment but did not reply by the time of publication.
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