It was twenty years ago (not today) . There was no Red Thread yet. At the time I met a big shot of one of the two Dutch labour unions – the FNV- in a pub. He addressed me on the subject of prostitution and I asked him if he would accept sexworkers as members. Óver my dead body’’, was his answer. Little did he know at the time, that shortly after his death the FNV would indeed accept sexworkers as members.
History took its course. The Red Thread came into being and the decriminilization of prostitution was initiatialized. The idea of working with a regular trade union came into focus. In 91 there was the first contact with the trade union.
The good news was that they were not fully opposed to sexwork as a concern of the labour movement any more. The bad news was that they couldn’t do anything for sexworkers at the time. They only took on members who were employees in a clear employer- employee relationship. In other words, there should be talk of a labour contract, oral or written. There was no way that could be arranged with a full safeguard of anonymity. Moreover, at the time the Red Thread was reluctant to accept the idea of employment and preferred the status of independent entrepeneur or self employed contractors. The Red Thread was concocting all sorts of constructions to realize this with full guarantees of anonymity.
The upshot was that we failed. The reason was that legalization of brothels meant ‘normalization’ and there was the taxman, looming behind the whole operation. And there is no way to pay tax anonymously. Well, you can give an donation to the taxman anonymously, but then you can never prove you have paid your share.
But then, a few years before the long awaited legalization took effect two developments took place:
1. The Red Thread relinquished the idea that employment with a labour contract was unconditionally out of the question.
2. Second, and more important, the FNV had decided to start a department for entrepreneurs without personnel.
These developments paved the way for a second round of contacts. And that was right before the legalization of brothels. And that proved to be decisive. The board of directors of the FNV decided that whatever the floor, their members thought, they should take up prostitutes rights. Formally members could stop them, but that never happened.
To make a long story short.
How do we now work with the union?
- They support us in making an union for sexworkers, in our own office that is associated with the big union. So we do the intake. And women don’t have to state their names etc in a rather official setting of a regular trade union. We can use their expertise in concrete cases. Time will tell if it has to stay this way or we’ll become fully integrated. Self employed sexworkers can also become members.
- The FNV gives us full support in case of labour conflicts in brothels whether individually or collectively.
- They also support us in political action and they pull all their force because they are fully recognized by the government as a social partner in our poldermodel.
- Besides they are developing a tailor made training programme for sexworkers so they can become full-fledged shop stewards.
- And they made us some materials.
- And last but not least, they are entitled to make a collective labour contract that should be valuable nation wide for those sexworkers who want to enter the employer-employee relationship.
We see the working with a regular trade union as a great step forwards:
- first and foremost: official recognition
- expertise in the case of labour conflicts
- weighty partner in political issues
In sum, a sexworker-union relationship utopia. Well, this was only possible after the legalisation, according to the FNV. Because legalisation gave them the authority to defend our case against the ‘traditional members’. And they could rally the powers that be, like the ministry of social affairs that they come up with workable policies towards prostitution. Besides, it is hard to see how sexworkers can fully enjoy worker’s rights when the necessary activities for their work, like soliciting clients is forbidden. That kind of regulation is inviting crime to take over, and when crime takes over worker’s rights go down the drain. So that it one of the reasons why it would be fantastic if the UK unions would join in the fight for decriminalisation of prostitution.
But can a union only do something with an official legal working force. Now we are debating with them about let say exploitation of undocumented sexworkers. We want to know if there is some kind of action possible in parallel with exploitation of people in textile sweatshops, domestic work in conditions of slavery. We are trying to work something out for those sexworkers, so they have a means of redress, which should be better than just deportation. But… there is this sensitive issue about undocumented women: we want more women to be documented but you should not make exceptions. Our view is: migrant sexworkers should enjoy the same rights and restrictions as migrants in other professions. Of course you can denounce national immigration politics as too limited. But then you should address it as a matter of immigration policy that concerns people in ALL professions.
And that brings me to the 50.000 pounds question: what are the advantages for a sexworker who won’t or can’t associate? E.g. the aforementioned undocumented women? Or for sexworkers who don’t perceive themselves as sexworkers and have taken up the work ‘just for a couple of days, to get some temporary financial relief?
The answer should be plain and simple: they should be able to apply for support, even if we don’t know their names and legal status. That’s why we keep up the old work, the work of the foundation and support them anyway. We as a union are not the police, we don’t check on residence permits or whatever. We don’t do the work of the police.
And as the police: they hardly ever come to our office and when they do, it is for an open discussion on policies. And we have a drink of lemonade with them and celebrate the poldermodel.
But how do brothel owners react? We didn’t exactly send us a box of cigars to celebrate. We encouraged the existing organisations of brothelownwers to take their next historically important step and become a member of the official organizations for employers. Some of them had come across that idea themselves. Some are willing to take their seat at the negotiating table. But on the whole, they sort of reacted scary and aggressive ; not unlike the great captains of industry in the nineteenth century when workers got organized.
In practice, this means we get kicked out of brothels often. There is a long way to go. We don’t expect we will succeed within the next year.
But let me conclude: there is one thing worse than fighting brothel owners and that is not fighting brothel owners. There is one thing worse than fighting exploitation, and that is not fighting exploiting. And there is one thing worse than organizing and that is not organizing. And there is one thing worse than just a small group of organized sexworkers and that is no group at all.