It is excellent to see a major British trade union taking seriously the issue of fighting the oppression of women (and men) in the sex industry.
The GMB are holding a fringe meeting at the ILO Labour Conference in Geneva, on 8th June, along with the International Sex Workers Union (ISWU). Ana Lopez, GMB Sex Workers Branch President said, “I believe that it is essential for trade unionists and labour experts who are concerned about workers in the sex industry to share experiences and questions, with an eye to longer term co-operation. Join us for a frank conversation about the role of trade unions in protecting sex workers, dealing with the risks, opportunities and challenges.”
The GMB has made mainstream trade union membership available to sex workers since March 2003. This is a major step forward in overcoming the stigma of sex work, and realising that the women and men engaged in this work can best improve their conditions through collective organisation. The campaigning stance by the GMB on this issue is an excellent example of the progressive role that trade unions can play in fighting against discrimination, and against prejudice.
The International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) approached several other unions and were turned down several times before the GMB accepted their affiliation. Ana Lopes says that the unions who rejected them expressed the opinion that sex work is not like other forms of work, and that the sector is not one that is easily organised. But Ana argues that the obstacles are by no means unique to sex work, and some of the concerns raised – the semi-legality of sex workers, the stigma and the discrimination – are identical to those raised by other undocumented migrant workers. The GMB are a good choice as a union for Sex Workers, they are a general union who organise other workers in low status jobs, and are also the main union in the gambling industry, which faces similar issues. Although Sex Workers are in the entertainment industry, it would be hard to see them at home in Equity, the Arts and Entertainment Union, who have a quote from Dame Judy Dench on their home page!
Ana Lopes is a genuine hero. Her background is anthropology with a PhD from the University of East London and she worked in the sex industry for four years, as a phone sex operator, glamour model and strip tease dancer. (Which also emphasises that sex work is wider than just prostitution) She is the author of “SEX WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE! Organizing in the sex industry.” She played a leading role in the creation of the IUSW, which later merged with the GMB. This marked an important shift in attitudes, and within a year of the the merger, the GMB adopted a policy calling for the decriminalisation of Sex Work.
This is an area where international cooperation is also vitally important, given the scale of human trafficking, and sex tourism. Check out the website of the Network of Sex Work Projects, and of course the English Collective of Prostitutes, who both provide excellent resources on this issue.
It is also worth mentioning the debate there has been around this issue on the consistently excellent Stroppy Blog (my current favourite)