Thanks to the cost-of-living crisis, prices at well-known Auckland strip club The White House have gone up – and so have what the dancers must pay their employers to work.
A lens had been placed on the labour rights of sex workers after the issue was put to Parliament in March with a petition. The petitioners, Fired Up Stilettos (FUS), formed after the contracts of 19 strippers from Calendar Girls in Wellington were unfairly terminated. FUS exposed the work environments of strip clubs where the dancers are regularly fined, required to pay a bond and not protected by their employers.
The White House, like most major strip clubs, treats the strippers as independent contractors and has a unique system in which the dancers must pay a bond, a shift fee and fines. Those fines are taxed from their earnings if they are late or don’t show up for work – sick, or otherwise.
In a staff meeting recently, the Queen Street club’s operators told the workers that because of inflation, Cyclone Gabrielle, and even post-Covid, times were tough. So, the prices of their services would be going up, as would the bond, shift fees, and fines.
The services, nude pool and lap dances, have each gone up $20 for the customer and the dancers still get their 60 percent cut. The club does not take a cut of the dancers’ tips.
But a shift fee, which a stripper must pay to dance at the club that night, used to be a flat rate of $30 – it has since been raised to $50 on weeknights and $100 on weekends.
The existing employees had to pay a bond of $500 at the start of their employment, which came out of their weekly earnings in $100 instalments. Under the new conditions, the bond has doubled to $1000, meaning the original dancers will have to pay another $100 per week until the $500 increase is covered. The bond can be returned or withheld by the club at the end of employment, for reasons such as property damage or other perceived bad behaviour.
White House dancer Holly* said the weekend shift fee and added bond, combined with how dead the club had been this winter, would take a massive cut out of her nightly earnings.
“If I worked a Friday or Saturday this weekend, then you’re immediately out of that shift getting $200 less, because it’s $100 for the shift fee and $100 bond for at least the next five shifts,” she said.
“That’s just pretty f***ed. Some Fridays and Saturdays I have literally made like $500 bucks, and then it’s like, cool, I’m going to take home $300.”
Though these nightly earnings might seem like a lot, another White House worker, Sarah*, said the time it took to prepare for the shifts, as well as the recovery after a long night, were hours she also counted as work.
“It’s not just a night. It’s actually two days because I have to spend three hours getting ready,” she said.
“Do everything, get there at 7.30pm. Sometimes you don’t get home till 8.30am in the morning and then your whole next day is wiped as well,” she said.
The penalty for not showing up for work if you are rostered on, regardless of the reason, used to be $100, but has now also doubled to $200. The late fines remain the same and the workers lose $20 for every half hour they are late or leave early on an 8pm to 4am weekday shift or 8pm to 6am weekend shift.
Dame Catherine Healy DNZM, national coordinator and founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, said the doubling of fines, fees and bonds was “astounding”.
“It’s highly skilled work and it’s shocking that they’re able to do this,” she said.
Healy pointed out that dancers needed the clubs to work, so the strip club owners had the monopoly.
“I live in hope that one day there’ll be a strip club that’s available for these dancers to move to that doesn’t treat them with such palpable disrespect.”
Holly* said The White House was actually considered the better place to work, and that other Auckland clubs’ fees and fines were much higher.
“We still know it’s better than most other clubs. This is the problem … most girls have worked at other clubs and the no-show fee at [another] club is $300.
“Everyone’s just like, well, it’s actually worse at other clubs. So it was just, about time that it happened here …”
The status of the dancers’ employment seems questionable. At the staff meeting where all of this was laid out over afternoon tea, the workers’ phones were confiscated. Then, a piece of paper with the new rules was laid down for them to sign and a copy of their driver’s licence or passport was made. No copy of the new ‘contract’ was given to the strippers, who were told they could adhere to the new rules or find somewhere else to work.
Healy said that, for an independent contractor, giving a copy of a contract of service is not something an employer is legally obliged to do.
“I mean, it sounds like an improper practice, but I don’t think it’s a legal breach.”
Simon Humphries, head of compliance and enforcement for the Labour Inspectorate, said dancers classified as contractors had no protection under employment law.
“Employment law provides protection and minimum rights for employees.
“That protection does not extend to workers who are contractors.
“This means that contractors are not entitled to benefits such as annual leave and sick leave, they can’t bring personal grievances, they have to pay their own tax, and general civil law determines most of their rights and responsibilities,” he said.
Sienna* told AUT publication Te Waha Nui in August that with the help of Fired Up Stilettos she was able to win her bond back from her ex-employer Showgirls after it was unlawfully withheld. FUS connected Sienna* with a lawyer, who eventually worked with her pro bono to win her case at the Disputes Tribunal in Auckland.
Whitehouse dancer Sarah* acknowledged the poor treatment experienced by the members of FUS under Calendar Girls but said poor treatment wasn’t her experience.
“I feel bad for those girls ‘cause that’s their experience. [It] sounds like a bad experience … and they didn’t make money and they worked really hard and they got treated really badly,” she said.
“My experience has not been that.
“Despite all the pitfalls of working there and the realities, I’ve made enough money doing it and experienced enough stability doing it that it’s all worth it.”
The White House is owned by Brian Le Gros and managed by his partner, Faye. They were both unable to be reached for comment.
*not the dancers’ real or working names.