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  • Molly Hiles

#FiredUpStilettos: One Year On

Shouted by: Molly Hiles (she/her), Phoebe Robertson (she/her)

Before discussing the fun parts of Sex Work, it is important to recognize the #FiredUpStilettos movement. In January 2023, Calendar Girls Wellington made headlines by abruptly firing 19 dancers. 35 strippers working at the venue signed the letter expressing their discomfort with the venue's intentions to start taking 50% of their earnings (up from 40%). The following day 19 lost their jobs. This sparked a larger movement, with the fired dancers coming together to form Fired Up Stilettos, a grassroots organisation fighting to combat exploitative practices in the adult entertainment industry. 

Strippers are categorised as independent contractors, which denies them benefits such as hourly wages and holiday leave. This in itself would be fine if the venues weren’t also exercising an absurd level of control over the workers—often beyond what would be expected in an employment relationship. Prior to the mass firing at Calendar Girls, the venue unilaterally changed the contract for all dancers (independent contractors are supposed to have the power to negotiate their contracts) The newly implemented price structure for private bookings greatly favoured the club, resulting in a significant price increase for customers and a decrease in earnings for the dancers. Hence the letter, hence the firing. 

But the infamous firing of 2023 was not the beginning of the problems in the adult entertainment industry. “The fact that we all got fired together, and all suddenly had nothing left to lose, meant that we were able to start tackling long standing industry issues in a big way” says FUS member Margot Embargot. These ‘long standing industry issues’ are present across the country and vary from club to club. The general theme of the problem: venue’s exercise unnecessary (and harmful) control over the workers, usually without providing the services they are supposed to be responsible for, like security and venue maintenance. “What strip club owners want is to be able to control strippers as if they are employees of the club, without paying them wages or being accountable to the employment relations authority.” Strippers don’t want a closer employment relationship with these venue owners, they just want to be treated like the independent contractor that they are. 

A variety of evil tactics are used by managers to gain and reinforce their control over the workers. While things like emotional abuse, manipulation, and sowing division within the workforce are quite hard to legislate against, Fired Up Stilettos has identified three key changes that could be legislated to support strippers trying to make their workplaces safer. 

  1. Allow adult entertainers the right to collectively bargain while maintaining independent contractor status. Contractors aren’t allowed to collectively bargain because in a perfect world there wouldn’t be a power imbalance between the venue and the worker. But here we are! (Screen workers had that same right ratified in the recently passed Screen Workers Bill).

  2. Outlaw fines and bonds. This would tackle one of the biggest material issues in the adult entertainment industry. Fines are listed in almost every contract across the country, even if they ‘aren’t used’ (as managers will smilingly assure you when you start working). Depending on the club, fines range from $20 to more than $500. ‘Infringements’ include calling in sick, ‘being rude’, using your phone, taking breaks, not taking off your underwear, asking for tips, being drunk. Honestly it could be anything. Fines are not regulated or recorded, can not be disputed, and are taken directly out of the workers pay before they receive it. Sounds like stealing, right?

  3. Ensure that clubs are not allowed to take more than 20% of a dancer’s income. The majority of a stripper's income is made by selling lap dances or private spa bookings. Every Wellington club now takes at least 50% of that money. 

More than 7000 people signed the petition which was delivered to parliament last June. On January 31st this year, exactly one year after the Calendar Girls firing, Fired Up Stilettos presented a 52 page document in support of the petition, the first of its kind written about the adult entertainment industry in Aotearoa. The document explains the industry, how it operates, the barriers to justice, the impacts of stigma, and possible solutions.

While this all sounds quite hopeful, legislation (if achieved) will not be a solution on its own. Unity is what every workforce needs to impact real change. Yes laws are something to lean on, but unless workers are in a position to push back against harm when it happens, venues are not going to change. Fired Up Stilettos is also concerned about stripper solidarity, the financial barriers to standing up at work, and the pervasive impact stigma has on all of these things. 

So, Fired Up Stilettos is entering its second year of existence. Clubs are just as shit as they ever were. The current government is swiftly repealing workers rights. But Margot assures us it’s not all doom and gloom. 

“Last week I found out via Salient that a Wellington brothel is closing down. Mundane brothel news! I was thrilled. To have sex workers seen and respected in the community is an incredibly important part of this movement. Venues rely on the idea that no one cares about strippers, no one listens to strippers, and no one thinks about strippers. And it works, because for a long time this was true. Strippers have been let down by the commerce commission, worksafe, police, and the employment relations authority. And those are just the cases Fired Up Stilettos are aware of. Shifting the social attitude toward strippers is already playing a huge role in our ability to access justice” says Margot. “I wouldn’t say it’s good, but it's better than it was a year ago and that is something to celebrate”. 

Fired Up Stilettos is a movement c

oncerned with the workers rights of strippers, but Embargot wants to emphasise the importance of all workers considering their working conditions. “Sex work is work, and most work is exploitative. That’s where the profit comes from, someone else isn’t getting a fair deal. Thinking and talking about the way we work and why is the first step to organising. The second step is recognising the strengths of the people in your team and working out how everyone's different strengths can form an effective team. After that, just fucking do shit and see what works.”

Want to support the movement? Look out for Fired Up Stilettos events and protests to attend, share the story with your friends and family, and call out bullshit when you hear it! If you’re stripping and your club is being a dick, or you just want to know more about your rights and ways to look after yourself (and each other) at work, check out @19firedupstilettos on instagram, and

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