UK Precarious Workers Learn from Sex Workers in Fight for Rights

Admin | 2023. April 15. - 03:22

A growing number of precarious workers in the UK are looking to the United Sex Workers (USW) union for guidance on how to fight for greater rights and better working conditions. Hayley Johns, who is organising yoga teachers in the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), has adopted the USW’s approach to community engagement and individual case advocacy. The Nanny Solidarity Network is another union branch that has sought the advice of the USW, on issues including the classification of workers as self-employed. The USW has won legal cases granting worker status to strippers, inspiring other gig workers to campaign for improved conditions.

Hayley Johns, a yoga teacher in southern England, is struggling to recruit fellow teachers to join a union. To overcome this challenge, she has turned to an unlikely source for help: sex workers. Despite facing criminalization and discrimination, sex workers have built a labor movement by working within communities and fighting individual cases.

Johns is organizing yoga teachers within the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and believes that sex workers' experiences have similarities to those of yoga teachers. They both work alone and for different employers, which makes organizing difficult. Johns said that something that felt impossible to them now feels possible, and could upturn the entire yoga industry.

Yoga teachers are not the only group of precarious workers who are learning from the United Sex Workers (USW) union how to fight for greater rights and better working conditions. The Nanny Solidarity Network, Britain's first union branch to represent au pairs and live-in childcare workers, was formed after reaching out to sex workers' organizations for advice in 2020.

Since its inception in 2017, the USW has twice won legal cases that granted strippers worker status and access to labor rights. The union hopes that these court rulings will help set a precedent for similar cases in the future. Such victories have inspired Johns and thousands of gig workers in low-paid, casualized, and precarious employment.

A push for gig workers' rights has seen an uptick in legal challenges to what unions call bogus self-employment. When a person is classed as self-employed, but operates as a full-time worker, or employee, without the corresponding rights, it is known as bogus self-employment. Workers who are misclassified as self-employed lack rights such as the minimum wage, paid holidays, rest breaks, and a cap on maximum weekly working hours.

"We're not actually self-employed at all because I don't set my rates, I don't set my hours," said Johns, adding that some teachers are told what and how to teach, and what to wear.

During the pandemic, many teachers were laid off and told that their clientele belonged to the gym or studio. But if teachers were self-employed, they should have been able to keep their clients, she said.

"Getting people to shift their mindset that this is work is one of the biggest challenges," said Johns, who said legal victories by sex workers had legitimized yoga teachers' fight for the same demands.

The USW helped stripper Sonia Nowak secure worker status at an employment tribunal in 2020. This decision could help strippers and workers in other sectors achieve the same status, said Sarah Keogh, an employment barrister who worked on the case.

"It's not just strippers that are required to conform to a set of quite prescriptive rules, and at the same time told 'you're an independent contractor, we're not going to give you any rights'," she said.

Union representatives said the successful cases could help them bargain for the rights of strippers working in the same clubs, as was the case with Uber drivers, who secured workers' rights for all of the ride-hailing app's 70,000 British drivers after two drivers won worker status in the Supreme Court in 2021.

"A win for one worker is a win for all workers," said Audrey Caradonna, a spokesperson for the USW.

"By aligning ourselves with the labor movement, we are situating ourselves in a broader struggle for economic and social justice. The labor movement has a long history of fighting for fair wages, benefits, and safe working conditions for workers. By working together with labor unions, we can amplify our collective voice and push for policies that benefit all workers, not just those in our specific industries.

Moreover, by joining forces with the labor movement, we are not only advocating for better working conditions but also for policies that promote a more equitable society. For example, labor unions have long been at the forefront of advocating for universal healthcare, affordable housing, and a living wage, all of which are critical to building a more just and equitable society.

Furthermore, aligning ourselves with the labor movement can help us address systemic issues like discrimination, inequality, and corporate greed. By standing in solidarity with workers who are most impacted by these issues, we can create a powerful force for change that holds corporations and policymakers accountable.

In short, aligning ourselves with the labor movement is not just about improving our own working conditions, but it is also about working towards a more just and equitable society for all. It is about recognizing that we are all connected, and that the struggle for economic and social justice is one that we must all fight together."