The lap dancers who joined a union

By Graham Fraser
BBC Scotland

Media caption,
Campaigner Megara Furie (left) and lap dancer Kayleigh Barrington have joined the GMB union

"If your job is under threat, you are going to unionise to fight that. Dancing is no different."

The words of Megara Furie, a former lap dancer who now works as a dominatrix. She is the driving force behind a curious chapter in the history of Scottish workers' rights - the unionisation of lap dancers and others who work in the sex industry.

"Unionisation for dancers means having their voices heard," Megara continued. "Having a seat at the table for future discussions… means raising standards across the board in all strip clubs and venues they would work in."

Megara was speaking to BBC News at the Seventh Heaven lap dancing bar in Glasgow. Last month, the club signed a union agreement with its staff - the first time a trade union has had a formal presence in Scotland's sex industry.

In April, the Scottish government brought in legislation which allows local authorities to limit the number of sex venues - including setting a zero limit if they wish.

A month later Glasgow launched a public consultation , asking dancers and the wider public to give their views - should the council decide to take up its newly-acquired power.

The council insists no decision has been made but many of the city's lap dancers see it as a threat to their jobs and have turned to the union for support.

The GMB campaign #Askthe700 has seen dancers on the city's streets, gathering names on a petition. The campaign aims to "save Glasgow's strip clubs", and is named after the union estimate of the number of lap dancers working in Scotland.

Image caption,
Megara Furie is a former dancer who is now a dominatrix.

Megara said: "When the consultation was announced, that is what really kick-started the membership. People need a reason to unionise, a reason to organise.

"It has created a lot of passion. There are people who normally would have hidden what they do, and they are coming right out of the woodwork.

"Had the (Glasgow) consultation not taken place, a lot of this would have still been kept indoors, in the shadows."

Image caption,
Over 50 dancers and other members of staff at lap dancing bars have joined GMB.

Other councils that have lap dancing bars in their areas are also discussing how to use the new powers. Edinburgh launched its consultation earlier this month, while Aberdeen, Fife and Highland councils told BBC News they plan on holding one. Dundee says it has made "no decision" on the issue yet.

The term "sexual entertainment venue" is not confined to lap dancing bars. It could be a pub or club that hosts a party night with sexual entertainment more than four times within a year.

Nine other local authorities who currently have no lap dancing bars, such as Renfrewshire, have told the BBC they have either launched a public consultation already or they are considering it.

Megara Furie first started talking to the GMB union about allowing sex workers to join a year ago. It followed conversations with other unions, who, she claims, "shot it down as being violence against women, exploitation, without actually speaking to any of the workers".

Last year, several groups campaigning for action to combat violence against women called on the Scottish government to make strip clubs illegal as they "normalise…misogynistic attitudes".

The government's own strategy includes "lap dancing" in its definition of violence against women.

More than 50 people across Glasgow's lap dancing venues - specifically Seventh Heaven and Diamond Dolls - have joined the union since GMB opened up its doors to them. They include dancers, bar staff and security staff.

Image caption,
Kayleigh Barrington says dancers should have a say, as it is "our bodies"

Kayleigh Barrington is a lap dancer at Seventh Heaven. She recently joined the GMB after working in the industry for five years.

"I joined the union because I want my voice to be heard.

"I used to be quite heavy - 17st 3lbs. I was quite discriminated in other jobs I used to apply for. I went and auditioned (as a lap dancer) and I got the job and I was accepted into the dancing world really quickly and easily.

"We are all like sisters - it is a solidarity that we have got."

For Kayleigh, her work as a lap dancer has helped her to fulfil a healthier lifestyle.

"With the flexibility of my job, it gave me the ability to be able to get up and go to the gym. I wasn't sitting at my desk, eating crisps. It gave me the confidence to put myself out there."

"I am all for being unionised - it is Ask the 700, ask the dancers. It is workers' rights. It is for us. We should be the ones that get the say.

"It is our bodies, so ask us."

Image source, Google
Image caption,
The agreement between the Seventh Heaven venue and the GMB union is the first of its kind in Scotland
Image caption,
Part of the VIP room of Seventh Heaven, where customers pay £100 for 20 minutes with a dancer.
Image caption,
The main stage of Seventh Heaven where the dancers perform.

At Seventh Heaven, both the club and the union believe that little has changed since the introduction of the union agreement. The club was seen by its dancers as already having favourable working arrangements, such as its "Safe Home" agreement which ensures the performers will be escorted to their cars or taxis by security staff.

Andrew Cox, the general manager of Seventh Heaven, told the BBC: "We had no hesitations when the GMB approached us as we have been actively seeking outside recognition of the care and commitment we have for customers, performers and staff."

He believes unionisation has given performers and staff a voice in the debate over licensing regulations.

Scotland's local authorities will be making decisions on the future of venues like Seventh Heaven in the coming months.

The GMB plan to submit its response to Glasgow's consultation next month, and will respond to the other public consultations launched by councils across the country.

A vocal, and now unionised group of lap dancers are making sure their voices are heard in the debate.

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