Suzi Martin & United Sex Workers share thoughts and experiences of fighting for the labour rights of sex workers in Edinburgh over the last few years - the battles won and next steps to be taken on. It's truly an honour to share their insights, along with resources for further learning and engagement..
It was a February afternoon and several dancers from Edinburgh’s strip clubs, including myself, braved the cold Scottish weather to stand outside the city chambers in protest.
City councils across Scotland had been given the power to grant Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs) Licences by the Scottish Government, within this power they could set a cap on how many of these licences they would grant. There are three venues in Edinburgh, but Edinburgh City Council had been discussing capping the number of licences at zero, this is what we were protesting. So, we stood outside the city chambers in our lingerie and heels, holding up placards saying “Sex Work is Work” and “Rights not Rescue.”
A month later we were at the council’s regulatory committee meeting, where the council would decide on what number to cap the SEV licenses at. The choices were zero or four (there were originally four venues, one never reopened after the pandemic). The dancers and the union gave their deputations and sat through the opposition’s deputations. Though I distinctively remember wondering how the oppositions would be affected by the closure of the clubs, they certainly wouldn’t be forced out of work, or pushed into poverty. Unfortunately, the council voted 5:4 in favour of the nil cap.
However, the resilience of the United Sex Workers union, backed by the individual strength of each of its members, shined through. We managed to secure a lawyer who would represent us in the judicial review. The clubs were already taking the council to court, but surely the workers should be heard. All we had to do was raise £20K. This was when we witnessed true acts of solidarity, from sex workers across the world, to pole studios, to club regulars, there were a lot of donations, and more allies than we anticipated. Within three weeks, our £20k target had been reached.
Even being part of the Judicial Review was a battle as Edinburgh council tried to prevent the union from participating. Funnily the councillors who voted in favour of the nil cap claimed ‘it was for the safety of women,’ but here they were trying to silence the women most affected by the closure of their work place. Fortunately, the Judge allowed our representation, with full protective expenses custody.
In December 2022 the Judicial review took place. Upon reflection I realise what an accomplishment this was for sex workers, to have our voices heard in Scotland’s highest civil court. The past year we had been part of press interviews, council meetings and political party meetings. I spoke on a panel at Edinburgh’s radical book fair, sex workers were being listened to, and taken seriously, something I don’t think would have been possible if we hadn’t unionised.
On 10th February 2023, little over a year since our protest, the judge published his decision. He had ruled the council had acted unlawfully by setting a nil cap. There were celebrations at work that evening. Although the Judicial review ruled in our favour, which is a historical event for sex workers, there is still a lot to be done. The United Sex Workers union, like other unions wants to improve working conditions for its members. Stripping is a legal and often regulated part of the sex industry. Although full-service sex work is legal, a lot of aspects of it are criminalised. With certain aspects of sex work being criminalised, it can be hard for a union fighting to improve working conditions, this is why USW supports full decriminalisation of the sex industry, as the best method of harm reduction.
Below you'll find resources and links to organisations supporting sex workers, as well as a list of books recommended by Suzi:
DECRIM NOW – National Campaign for Sex Workers’ Rights
Scot Pep - A sex worker-led charity that advocates for the safety, rights and health of everyone who sells sex in Scotland.
SWARM Collective - a collective founded and led by sex workers who believe in self-determination, solidarity and co-operation.
ARE YOU A SEX WORKER? JOIN THE UNION - POWER TO THE WORKERS!