MARIE CLAIRE (Australia)
January 1996

Jemima Walsh

pp. 48-51

The world's first Prostitutes Union

Australia has become the first country to unionise the world's oldest profession, promising prostitutes the same rights afforded any other worker. By Jemima Walsh

A 17-year-old girl working in an illegal brothel endures constant death threats and beatings for a mere $100 a week. She cannot leave because the brothel owner has custody of her three-year-old son. In a massage parlour, the owner abuses the workers, who are mostly underage. To cut overhead, sheets and towels are rarely washed, and the girls are each charged $40 a night to cover the cost of processing credit card payments. At an escort agency, women are sacked if they refuse a training session with a man who gives them a rating out of 10 for various sex acts. He receives $50 for his "efforts". Similar mistreatments are being documented by prostitutes throughout Australia on a daily basis.

But, finally, the oldest profession is fighting back. In a world first, sex workers have formed their own union, registered with the ACTU. About 100 years after Australia's first unions were formed, the struggle for sex workers has only just begun. And while some are too scared to speak out, there is general consensus it is time these women were accorded the same rights as the rest of Australia's workers. Operating under the umbrella of the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union (LHMU) sex workers are busy negotiating their demands. As well as fighting unfair dismissals and mistreatment, union officials are pushing for an award wage, holiday, sickness, annual and maternity leave occupational health and safety provisions, overtime, superannuation and meal breaks. Work conditions union officials say all Australians take for granted.

Powered by the legalisation of prostitution in the ACT and more recently the decriminalisation of brothels in Victoria, NSW, Australia's sex industry is undergoing some radical changes. At present, the union can only represent prostitutes who work in legal brothels in the ACT, Victoria, NSW. And while brothels are still illegal in other States, sex workers say it is only a matter of time before such practices are decriminalised across the country. In Western and South Australia, the issue was hotly debated in parliament in 1995 and is due for review this year.

The union has already started taking employers to court for unfair dismissal with impressive results, including two sizeable out-of-court settlements

Pioneering prostitutes' rights and union lobbyists Maryann Phoenix, who helped establish the Prostitutes' Collective of Victoria (PVC), a voluntary community based support group, and Ruth Frenzel. The duo, who work for the Victorian branch of the LHMU, were instrumental in the lengthy negotiations that finally enabled sex workers to affiliate with the union in August 1995. Phoenix — a part-time sex worker for 17 years — is now a paid union organiser fighting the exploitation of sex workers. She sites her work with the PVC as a prime motivator to push for a prostitutes' union, adding that the need for some sort of workplace protection was "patently obvious".

Since its inception in 1984, the PCV has catalogued a litany of exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous brothel owners, who are allegedly going to desperate lengths to cove up the collective's shocking findings. Other recent cases documented by PCV include a woman who was fined $45 and threatened with the sack for being a few minutes late for work. At the same brothel, a receptionist was dismissed for being "disloyal" when she sided with workers complaining about their conditions. Another prostitute, who answered an ad for massage staff, promising "good conditions", arrived at the interview to be greeted by five men who each demanded sex to see whether she was "suitable". At the end of the session, she was given $60 on the basis that two men didn't ejaculate: she had refused them sex unless they wore condoms.

"We hear these sorts of stories all the time," Phoenix says. "Unfair dismissal is one of the most common ones, and there's no job security. People don't know when they turn up for work whether they've got a job or not." she says.

Maryann Phoenix. PHOTO: Marie Claire
PHOTO: Marie Claire
Maryann Phoenix.

Phoenix approached Frenzel, a full-time union activist who has never workerd in the sex industry, in late 1994 with her grand plan to include prostitutes in the LHMU. With Frenzel's support, the two battled with the more servative elements within several trade unions who feared a backlash if prostitutes were allowed to affiliate with their memberships. The prevailing attitude was summed up by one trade unionist who reportedly said on hearing his union might take prostitutes: "We don't want to be known as the best 'fucking' union in the country.

Yet in August last year, the LHMU national executive gave Phoenix the go-ahead after the union voted on the issue. Since then, Phoenix's reputation as a political activist has earned her respect from workers in Australia and internationally.

She believes it's a time of great importance adding that women are increasingly voicing their demands for equal rights. "If women in this industry can work within a good framework and with good working conditions then it can be very empowering," Phoenix says. "We've gone past the victim stages in this industry, but there are victims."

Phoenix lists non-payment for work as the most frequent complaint, particularly in the escort industry. "There are bonds, fines, extra fees for tea money, long shifts and of course, the stories of owners trying to do things — casting couch practices — workers being made to do things that they don't want, such as seeing clients without condoms," she says.

"There are some workers who will show up for work at their rostered time. They can be on the premises for up to 14 hours. They may not get a client but work. At end of the day they leave completely empty-handed. Yet during that time they might be required to clean various areas of the brothel, greet clients and do the laundry.

Phoenix says a base rate is of great importance. "Just because they don't see a client doesn't mean that they don't work. Many of these women have children and They have got to pay for childcare or baby-sitting and they don't earn a bloody cent."

The response from sex workers has been "incredibly positive", according to Phoenix. "Workers can't believe it. They've been promised the world over the years and it hasn't been delivered, so there's quite a bit of hesitation there there but generally they welcome it."

Phoenix and Frenzel have spent many months gauging the reaction of sex workers and brothel owners, who initially treated the exercise as a bit of a joke. "We weren't so concerned about the response from employers, but we were worried about whether or not workers in the industry really did want industrial regulation and union coverage," Frenzel says.

On the surface, the nature of prostitution offers many complexities for union coverage. "People drift in and out of it." Frenzel explains. "And the bosses can be mongrels — they often are. There are some really good ones, but they're so small in numer that one can get away with a generalisation. There are also sex workers from non-English speaking backgrounds who are absolutely being screwed to the wall."

But the union movement thrives on fighting tough battles and Frenzel is prepared for such deep-seated pessimism. There is a vocal minority and then there's a lot of workers who support it but are afraid to speak out. It's a very predictable response and certainly one we planned for."

Employers are starting to take the union seriously and Frenzel senses a growing resistance. They have already starting taking employers to court for unfair dismissals with impressive results, including some sizeable out-of-court settlements.

There are employers who are broadly supportive of the concept but, when push comes to shove, we are going to end up with a huge fight in the Industrial Relations Commission," says Frenzel. "Nothing will convince me otherwise because they've already shown all the classic signs of it. Having said that, there's been quite a lot of progress and we've already had two meetings with employers. The employers are desperately trying to make sex workers look like contractors, not employees," she says. "And if they're not employees, you can't have a Federal award for them."

Although prostitutes have bemoaned intrusions by the Australian Taxation Office in recent years, the ATO has become an unlikely ally in the push to recognise prostitutes as employees instead of contractors. It was the tax office that initiated a recent SW Supreme Court ruling for the courier industry, setting a crucial legal precedent which will ultimately allow the union to protect prostitutes as employees. The ATO took a Sydney courier to court last year, claiming back-tax for its employees. The company said its couriers were contractors over whom the company had absolutely no control. And similarly, brothel owners say prostitutes are contractors who merely rent space in a brothel to conduct business. The court found the couriers were subject to the usual controls over employees, therefore they were employees and the company had to back-pay the tax.

There's no doubt tat most of these sex workers who work in brothels are subject to control tests," Frenzel says. "The rates are set by the brothel, there's a dress code, a roster — all sorts of things which suggests that these people are employees; they're not contractors.

"The fact is that these people are exerting control over sex workers in terms of how they do their work, what they say, when they turn up for work, when they leave, the fact they can't go out for lunch or go out for a tea break. The fact that they're required to be on the premises all the time to greet clients indicates that they are probably subject to more rigorous control tests than most other workers.

"Clients worried about the prospect of turning up at a brothel where the sex workers have gone on strike need have few fears," says Frenzel. "These women are not even sure of their rights. They aren't certain about anything really, apart from the fact that they want a union."

Phoenix believes the exploitation of prostitutes will be eradicated when society views sex work as an industry. She says partial legalisation has finally transformed attitudes of both society and sex workers.

When Phoenix first started working as a prostitute, people were too ashamed to disclose their work. "But the attitude of workers has changed and there's a new wave of young workers who are very proud of what they do. I think that's the result of legalisation, lobby groups and women's organisations arguing that sex workers should have rights," she says.

What workers say

A key part of the union's success is support in numbers. But when marie claire sought out prostitutes' opinions, reactions were mixed.

In the "women's room" of an up-market Canberra brothel, the prostitutes discuss unionisation while they change clothes, touch up their make-up and relax while waiting for clients. They are a diverse mix of articulate women keen to share their insights into an occupation held in contempt by the rest of society.

The mood of this modern-day harem darkens when Megan, barely out of her teens, relives a recent episode. "I had started at midday and by three in the morning I was utterly exhausted," she says. "The last client had been pounding me for an hour and there was no way I could do another job. But they wanted the money. The receptionist said, 'Do it, or else you're fired'. I had to do it."

Jo, who claims prostitution has boosted her self-esteem and freed her from a bad marriage, believes those in the sex industry should have the same rights as other workers, including the right to maternity and sick leave. "And there should be a base rate for girls who turn up but don't have any clients."

Gia can make up to $3000 a week but asks, "With the union, would there be recognised shift work? If I work from 8 pm till 4 am, should I get double pay? And what if you sit all day and don't get a job — do you get paid? No, exactly. Nobody will take us seriously; we'll always be discriminated against."

Gia continues: "It's a very sad thing to say, but I don't think a union will help much because there's not many of us who can stand up. Most of us are single parents. Not many of us can reveal our true identities."

Jo agrees that change will be very difficult, but sees the main opposition coming from society, not employers. "People aren't going to accept the fact that prostitutes get maternity and sick leave, and a union won't have the balls to stick up for us in the face of society disapproval. People just don't realise how hard our work is. Society judges us, but if people could see what we do. We get a lot of disabled men who can't go out and pick up girls. We make them feel good and nobody else can do that for them. Society's perception is that we're just a bunch of women who lie on our backs, but it's not true."

Serious S&M

Legalisation has brought an unprecedented degree of respectability, and competition, to brothels. Although light bondage remains popular in today's sex industry, S&M is more likely to stand for Sales and Marketing.

At First Protocol, in Canberra, clients are likely to be wecomed with a little pre-sex aromatherapy and shiatsu massage. The brothel's marketing is aimed at the nations politicians and the official opening was performed by the Federal Health Minister, Dr. Carmen Lawrence. Club Goldfingers, also in Canberra, targets couples who want to spice up their sex lives. For about $80 couples receive a complimentary bottle of champagne on arrival and then spend one to two hours in erotic theme rooms including Arabian, bordello, colonia and Japanese.

Cross-promotion is another popular marketing tool. Melbourne's Top of the Town works with the casino offering its customers a free spin on the "big wheel". Clients can also pay for their brothel booking using casino chips. The … ad-market … has also been the venue for Playbox Theatre Company productions giving Top of the Town kudos as a legitimate corporate sponsor. Melbourne's exclusive Daily Planet… conversation and psychology classes for 100 sex workers.

Going Legit

  • The ACT, Victoria and NSW are the only jurisdictions in Australia where prostitutes work without fear of arrest.
  • In the ACT, prostitution was decriminalised in 1992 and all brothels are confined to the industrial suburbs of Fyshwick and Mitchell.
  • Victoria's Prostitution Control Act took effect on June 14 last year and brothels were given three months to register with the Prostitution Control Board. Brothels in Victoria are subject to licensing laws and must not operate near schools, hospitals or churches.
  • In NSW, prostitution is no longer an offence and brothels were decriminalised on November 15 last year.
  • Bills to decriminalise prostitution were defeated in both WA and SA parliaments last year. Despite prostitution being illegal in WA, the town of Kalgoolie promotes its brothels as a tourist attraction, following guidelines that limit prostitution to one street in the town.
  • In the NT, escort agencies are legal, yet prostitution as such is illegal.
  • In Tansmania, prostitution is legal, but you cannot make money from it.
  • In Queensland, brothels are illegal although single prostitutes are allowed to operate. However, being a client is illegal.

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Created: November 16, 1996
Last modified: October 22, 2015
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