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Fat cats, cuts and courtesans

Whilst the Coalition is undermining health and safety, Elaine Smith MSP argues the plight of sex workers demands human rights not unionisation

The unholy alliance of the Tories and Liberals has now resulted in vicious cuts planned for our public services. These cuts, along with the rise in VAT and ideological attack on state provision, must be causing anyone who voted Liberal to keep the Tories out (or who thought that a coalition would stop the worst excesses of the Posh Boys) to be cringing at the outcome. Labour could have won the election and were actually managing to gain ground despite the allowances disaster with policies such as taxation on bonuses helping to narrow the Tory lead.

Then New Labour, as ever, rose to the occasion with Alistair Darling's proclamation that Labour's cuts would be worse than Thatcher's. Did he really think that this remark would be helpful? No wonder Alex Salmond leapt upon this in the Scottish Parliament with undisguised glee, knowing that the very mention of the hated name would be to Labour's disadvantage and cause squirming on the Labour benches.

The real losers

Of course the real losers will be the majority of working class people across Britain dependent on the public sector for jobs, support and services. The posh boys, too busy quaffing their champers at the Regatta and Ascot won't notice much difference.

A story from Henley last year illustrated the kind of issue the toffs worry about. The Telegraph reported on a young woman who was devastated at being turned away from the poshest enclosure due to the unsuitability of her attire. 'It was the most degrading thing I have ever been through and I was very angry. They said that my dress was too short. I wore this dress in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and nobody said anything.' Undoubtedly the poor wee soul will recover and, given her obvious privilege, will never have to suffer the reality of degradation by losing her livelihood; as so many ordinary people will at the behest of Cameron's Ascot crowd.

There can be little doubt now about the re-emergence of class to the fore of the political agenda. Of course, this class war never left us but was hiding below the surface; covered up by the cool Britannia, things can only get better, and the big business friendly spinmeisters of the New Labour project. To counter attack the ConDem cuts, it's imperative that Labour now turns its attention to democratising the party, recognising that class interests exist and addressing the real task of producing policies to support the working class. Fundamental to this is a proper alliance with the trade unions such as the party once had.

The unions are themselves currently under attack from big business and capitalist interests. The BA dispute and legal challenges to Unite and the RMT show how Tory anti-union legislation, not overturned by Labour, is being used to undermine democratic industrial action. John McDonnell's Private Member's Bill would help to change this but its chances of success are slim.

This is undoubtedly a co-ordinated assault on trade unionism which fits nicely with the agenda of the millionaires now in charge. In Scotland, the SNP are aiding and abetting this attack on unions.

A warning

An example is the current RMT dispute to keep conductors on the new Airdrie to Bathgate service, as agreed previously with First Scotrail. However, at the behest of the SNP Government's agency, Transport Scotland, the privateer train operator has indicated that the service will be driver only (DOO) and any losses, due to the ensuing strike, may be underwritten using public money handed over by the SNP's Transport Minister.

This should be a warning to workers that only a real Labour Government working in partnership with the trade unions will protect hard won rights.

Paul Kenny GMB General Secretary summed the situation up recently when he said: 'It is a testament to the priorities of this government, led by two public schoolboys, that they should consider attacking the rights of ordinary workers rather than the bankers who caused the recession'.

'Over-the-top'

It's not only workers rights such as withdrawal of labour that are likely to be attacked. Hard won Health and Safety regulations are also under threat.

Speaking prior to the election David Cameron said: 'I want to set out a future Conservative government's approach to the great knot of rules, regulations, expectations and fears that I would call the over-the-top health and safety culture.'

Labour gave Workers Memorial Day, 28th April, official status from this year. This was an important development in Health and Safety, helping to raise awareness of workers killed, injured or made unwell by their work each year. Indeed, figures for 2008/09 show that there were 180 workplace fatalities in the UK and around 4,000 deaths from cancer due to previous exposure to asbestos.

Far from being 'over-the-top', the UK has one of the best records in the world because of the hard fight put up by trade unions, assisted by Labour politicians, over many years. Cameron's intentions don't bode well, with changes unlikely to favour workers.

Exploitation of women

The issue of health and safety is not limited to the issues mentioned above and, with little attention, extends to issues concerning 'sex workers'. This isn't a left-right, or a feminist issue, as divided opinion across the Labour and Trade Union Movement demonstrates.

There are some compelling arguments for unionising prostitutes which centre upon their safety and security. This is clearly a dangerous way. Studies have shown a high incidence of rape, physical assault and mental trauma amongst women involved in prostitution with most wanting to escape. Other arguments are focused around the view that prostitution is work, workers have rights and therefore unions can help establish and protect the rights of prostitutes at 'work'.

However, as Karl Marx argued over a century ago: 'Prostitution is only a particular expression of the universal prostitution of the worker'.

When the GMB established its sex workers branch, 'Club Crème', an 'exotic' dance club's spokeswoman told Radio 4's Today programme that 'We have no problem with the unions and we're glad to have them on board and supporting us as an industry'. That's the problem. If unions are 'supporting' the sex industry where does that leave their fight against discrimination, exploitation and violence against women? Who are they negotiating with – pimps, brothel owners or organised crime cartels? The intentions are good but the reality is far more complex.

Prostitution has been placed firmly on the spectrum of violence against women by the UK and Scottish Government's informed by the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which describes 'commercial sexual exploitation, including prostitution, pornography and trafficking… to have been shown to be harmful for the individual women involved and have a negative impact on the position of all women'.

"The union is like a pimp!"

Writing on the subject, Julie Bindel quotes a former prostitute arguing that unionising the sex industry is 'saying it's okay for women to be abused. The union is like a pimp because it is encouraging and facilitating it.'

Trade unions must concentrate on ending commercial sexual activity rather than unionising it. This multi-million pound industry benefits some very fat cats at the expense of vulnerable women. Prostitution is not a career choice: it's motivated by economic necessity, desperation and premised on abuse. As Julie Bindel says 'Women in the sex industry need human rights not workers rights.'

Wealthy capitalists, whether in legitimate business or the 'sex industry', will continue to profit whilst the working class pay for it. Voluntary organisations and projects like Glasgow's 'Routes out of Prostitution' will undoubtedly suffer from the cuts agenda. The Labour and Trade Union movement must mount a fightback against the cuts, arguing for a positive agenda such as that contained in the People's Charter (http://thepeoplescharter.org/).

The ConDem cuts must be fought tooth and claw so that the working class don't pay the price with their jobs, wages and conditions for the mess caused by fat cats whose chums are now in charge.