West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals
During the Developing Capacity for Change Project, Vancouver sex workers expressed their desire to explore cooperative business models as a way to generate alternative sources of income, increase health and safety, build community capacity and begin to take control of our collective destiny. This cooperative corporation will be a for profit endeavor with its membership guiding all decisions.
Vancouver sex workers from the downtown eastside community have been working hard to create a framework for this cooperative and have finalized governance policies, decision making procedures, terms of reference, membership criteria, code of conduct, and conflict management procedures that will reflect what they envision as a community. The cooperative cooperation was formally incorporated in February 2008 and is known as the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals.
This project reflects the diversity of the sex working community as it includes women, men and trans-individuals as well as those from different 'classes' and varying capacities and abilities. More specifically, sex workers engaged are multi-literate and culturally diverse. First Nations, Asian, Caucasian, Black workers and those of mixed race are currently invested.
We are a cohort of sex industry community members who work;
- Ø To create labour standards to improve the occupational health, safety and capacities of sex industry professionals as employees and contractors within a legitimized profession.
- Ø To empower and unify sex working communities inclusive of diversities to increase the economic security of adult sex industry workers.
- Ø To provide worker-specific training/ education/empowerment/ capacity building, ownership of skills and leadership in developing policies within the sex industry.
- Ø Nurture community relationships, forge partnerships, identify and engage allies and external expertise in pursuit of Cooperative goals.
- Ø Create a community where all are respected and honoured for their experiences.
- Ø Create enterprises that reflect the dreams and aspirations of diverse groups of sex industry workers.
And commit to;
- Ø Work for the safety and respect of all sex industry workers regardless of their location within the industry;
- Ø Ensure the inclusion of diverse communities, perspectives, capacities and expertise from the sex industry;
- Ø Promote progressive thought, forward thinking and continual positive change for the empowerment and education of sex industry workers and the community at large;
- Ø Keep harm reduction frameworks at the forefront and work toward social justice and social change to increase quality of life in addition to human and labour rights for sex industry workers.
- Ø Pool resources and work together as a community.
Currently the WCCSIP are working to raise money to fund the enterprises identified during the "Leading the Way" project. We hope to be open for business in time for the 2010 Games. www.wccsip.ca
Why a Co-operative?
A few years ago Mohammad Yunnus won the Nobel Peace Prize for designing a co-operative micro lending program which was adapted as a co-operative credit union for sex workers working in West Bengal in India. Sex workers in India do not have the option to exit the sex trade as they live within a cast system: once a sex worker always a sex worker. As a community they identified their biggest problem as living in debt servitude to the brothel owners. They would take small loans to buy diapers or food and end up paying exorbitant amounts of interest which forced them to borrow more. As a result, they were left living in a state of slavery. The co-operative credit union has had a tremendous impact on the quality of life for sex workers in India and now has over 45,000 sex workers accessing its benefits.
We wondered, "Could this be a solution for Canadian sex workers?" So we endeavored to find out. In 2005, the Developing Capacity for Change Project followed and, Vancouver sex workers expressed their desire to explore co-operative business models as a way to generate alternative sources of income, increase health and safety, build community capacity and begin to take control of our collective destiny.
During 2005 a group of sex workers had also come together in partnership with Simon Fraser University and began the History of Sex Work Project in the hopes of discovering the history of sex work, our history, in the City of Vancouver. How did sex workers contribute to its growth, character and its conception? In recent years, the sex workers civil rights movement has become an international effort and sex workers all over the world are demanding human rights and labor standards. As in all civil rights movements, we need to understand our history in order to understand our place in the community. The foundation for change is to have pride in ourselves and the accomplishments of the sex workers before us.
We wanted to understand the factors which came to bear on the quality of life for sex workers throughout the life of our city and how the situation had degraded into the disaster we see today in the downtown east side of Vancouver. We learned how from the 1920's up until the early 70's the sex industry had existed in what were called "Supper Clubs" where a gentleman could be entertained with a nice dinner, an escort to keep him company, and a Las Vegas style exotic dance performance. Dancers, escorts, cigarette girls, waitresses, cooks, bouncers and bartenders all worked together under the same roof. This was a community where everyone worked within their own personal boundaries and in relative safety, within a safe, supportive work environment.
The end results of the project were a book and a multi media museum installation which are owned by and created by the project participants. The Group discussed how the project could be expanded to include an historical walking tour and supper club style dinner and show that could provide employment opportunities for sex workers, empower sex workers through knowledge of our history, and support the creation of a number of co-operative enterprises.
The enterprises the team thought would support the expansion of the project were catering (preparing and serving dinner to patrons), publishing (to ensure ownership of our book and other creative property), consulting (project participants have already been invited to lecture on the project and its findings at universities) and, of course art (the History project is very artistic and as well, the team intends to develop a play).
These enterprises have become the foundation of WCCSIP along side of the desperate need for safe work spaces for street entrenched workers. The history project also showed how the systematic elimination of safe work environments has de stabilized the sex industry into the dangerous place it is today. Only through stabilization and protection of these safer work spaces will we see the mortality rate of Canadian sex industry workers slow down.