Frustrated strippers meet with MPs to discuss ways to improve contractors' rights

By Giles Dexter for RNZ

A group of fired strippers frustrated with slow progress on legislative change has been meeting with MPs to discuss what changes could be made to improve their rights, and the rights of other contractors.

Nineteen strippers at Calendar Girls in Wellington were told to 'clear out their lockers' earlier this year after they protested the terms of their new contract.

Forming the protest group Fired Up Stilettos, the strippers have mobilised to seek legislative improvements to contractors' rights.

While they were fighting for their own rights as strippers, the group was optimistic other industries with a lack of contractor protections could benefit from law changes.

"Hopefully, it can inspire and enable other contractors to realise that they can demand better, and they should, and that no one should be being exploited at work no matter who they are," Fired Up Stilettos organiser Margot said.

The government had been looking at whether some employers were avoiding responsibilities by miscategorising workers as contractors, rather than employees.

A working group had reviewed options for improving the conditions of contractors, and delivered its report at the end of 2021. Stripping was not one of the industries considered by the working group.

Further work had been delayed, as part of the prime minister's reprioritisation programme in March.

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said it was because the government wanted to wait for the outcomes of any appeals related to Uber's case with the Employment Court.

"The Uber Employment Court ruling in New Zealand has significant implications on the legal definition of a contractor, so rather than pushing ahead with our proposed consultation on changes based on the report the government has put our work on hold until there is an outcome from the current case," he said in a statement.

Strippers have protested before Parliament over workplace rights.
Strippers have protested before Parliament over workplace rights. Photo credit: Fired Up Stilettos

The delay was disappointing, Margot said.

"It's not something that can be put off for us. It's a matter of people's safety, and safety at work, which is a place that you can't just leave, because you have to have an income.

"We think it's quite urgent. And it's not something that should have been disregarded."

One of the group's key demands was for the right for strippers to collectively bargain, while maintaining their independent contractor status.

Wood said this meant the group was seeking something different to other workers who had raised concerns around being misclassified as contractors.

"Fired Up Stilettos are arguing to create a new category in which they would retain the flexibility of independent contractors, while accessing some of the rights and protections of employees."

Margot said it was "not safe and not ethical" for strippers to be employees, which was why they wanted to remain contractors.

"It's incredibly important. It's really the only way that we can protect the autonomy and freedom that we need, and also work towards being able to stand up for ourselves at work and collectively bargain and demand better and fairer conditions for ourselves."

The group had identified two current members' bills that it believed could be tweaked to include independent contractors in their scope.

The first, a bill from Labour's Helen White, would limit the abilities for businesses to insert the 'restraint of trade' clause into contracts wherever an employee earns less than three times the minimum wage.

The group had already met with White, who said she was struck by the situation the dancers faced.

"They were kind of getting the worst of both worlds, because they were in a position where they were restrained from working anywhere else.

"And that means that they didn't have the power to leave a situation, which was one where perhaps the experience was harrowing, and where people were taking advantage of them."

White, who was an employment lawyer before entering Parliament, was unsure whether contractors could fit into the definition of her bill, but said if someone was found not to be a contractor, but an employee, then they would be within scope.

"It's critical to start somewhere, and private members' bills are often quite narrow. This is a bill just about employees, but I've raised issues about if you have restraint of trade in your contract, are you really a contractor?"

Strippers and supporters at Parliament.
Strippers and supporters at Parliament. Photo credit: Fired Up Stilettos

Fired Up Stilettos also wanted to outlaw fines and bonds between employers and contractors, and set a mandatory maximum of 20 percent that an employer could take from a contractor's profits.

In April, a bill from Labour MP Ibrahim Omer was also drawn from the ballot. Omer's bill would amend the Crimes Act to make wage theft a crime.

Fired Up Stilettos said the fines and bonds they were subjected to amounted to wage theft. Like White's bill, Omer's bill explicitly refers to "employees", but Margot believed it could be amended to include contractors.

"I think there's no reason why this can't be illegal for every worker," she said.

The group planned to engage with Omer later in June, and had also met with Green Party MPs a number of times to discuss options for an industry-specific bill.

Neither White's nor Omer's bills have had their first readings in the House, but given Labour's majority they will both likely pass and reach the Select Committee stage.

But with the election looming, any further progress this term is unlikely.

White planned to meet with Fired Up Stilettos again.

"You've got to listen to people and work with them to get legal outcomes that actually are things that they want," she said.

Contractors earn income through invoicing businesses for their services, and are not covered by the Employment Relations Act.

Michael Wood said the judiciary still had the power to identify if breaches of contract had occurred, and MBIE offered dispute resolution to people in employment-like situations, including contractors, if both parties agreed.

But Margot said while strippers had taken legal action against employers in the past, and won, the option was still not good enough to prevent exploitation happening in the first place.

"Any person who assumes that we can resolve this safety crisis using existing frameworks and institutions needs to recognise that business owners in the adult entertainment industry rely on the stigma and silence of their workers in order to exploit them.

"Stigma that is created not by strippers, but by the same society that created those institutions."

Fired Up Stilettos protested in front of Parliament in April. They plan to return on Wednesday - this time, on a day the House is sitting.

The last protest being on a Sunday, the only MP to attend was the Greens' Jan Logie.

Margot was hopeful the mid-week protest would attract more MPs.

"We are definitely exhausted, but I honestly have never worked with such an amazing group of determined and creative and fiery people, it just feels like nothing is impossible at this point."

A petition running on Parliament's website until the end of the month had more than 5600 signatures at time of writing.