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

Article excerpt

"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. …