Enter your email to read this article
Read news on any topic, in one place, from publishers like The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more.

Queensland strippers make disturbing allegations of wage theft, exploitation and sexual assault in clubs

Orphaned at the age of 21, Queensland stripper Raven began working as a paralegal by day and a stripper by night.

Her six-year career spanned several clubs where she's worked both as a dancer and a manager under the name Raven Inferno.

But her time working in Brisbane came to an abrupt end when she says she was "blacklisted" from the industry after raising allegations of wage theft.

"I often stood up for myself which isn't a very well-viewed thing to do," she said.

While some venues treat dancers fairly, Raven said there were "a bad bunch of clubs" in Brisbane, run by "the same bad eggs", where staff were routinely mistreated and fired for speaking out.

The 27-year-old, along with several other current and former dancers from Brisbane strip clubs have detailed a raft of disturbing workplace failures, including alleged wage theft, exploitative working conditions, a lack of safety, and sexual assault at the hands of clients with little repercussions.

It comes as the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC) seeks to overhaul the state's sex work laws in a bid to decriminalise the industry – but strippers have been shut out of the review.

Their exclusion has sparked fears that heavy police targeting could shift onto dancers if they remain left out.

Under current laws, it is illegal for dancers to perform sex acts on patrons.

But advocates say the nature of their work can sometimes lead them to, putting them at risk of potentially breaking the law.

Their criminal exposure is compounded by their vulnerability as a workforce, which is largely made up of young female students, some from turbulent backgrounds who have only just turned 18.

Dancers say the taboo surrounding their industry leaves them with scant working rights and a reluctance to report crimes to police due to fears they would not be taken seriously.

'A wild goose chase' of owed money

Strippers earn the bulk of their wage from private lap dances but nearly all clubs take a commission of up to 60 per cent on each dance.

Raven took one club to the Fair Work Ombudsman after she was owed $3,500 over about three months.

"The conditions were terrible, working 12-plus hours, very little break in between, six-plus days in a row – there's just no real workplace rights," she said.

"They won't pay you the correct award wage – they won't even know what it is. They won't pay penalty rates, they'll retain tax and super and not actually pay either of them."

The ABC contacted Brisbane club owners at the centre of the claims who gave varying responses to accusations — some denied the allegations, while others said their venues were heavily regulated.

In Raven's case, her former employer said his club had never underpaid a dancer but acknowledged the case taken to Fair Work.

He said she was employed as a manager and controller, which had "no connection to dancer earnings".

"I can categorically state no dancers are ever without payment for their services due to venue policy or procedure," he said.

"Adjustments were made to our payroll and timesheet processes at the time to prevent future underpayments. 

"There is no ability to have anyone 'blacklisted' in such a competitive market as the adult entertainment industry."

Brisbane dancer Eve* said she has taken just two breaks in the two years she has worked in strip clubs and is owed a significant amount of money.

"Some people would make this amount in a whole week working 9am to 5pm so it was a substantial amount of money that I missed out on," she said.

"I went through all of the hostesses, the general managers, I went through the owner themselves and I could not get it back. I was just told 'ask this other person'.

"It was just a wild goose chase trying to find my money.

"There's no protections for the dancers to get that money back. If management don't want to give it to you, they just don't give it to you."

Tamara* has worked at several clubs over her five-year career.

One of the clubs she worked at had touchscreen kiosks with a list of dancers' names and faces for clients to select which girl they want a lap dance from.

Clients pay the machine, which produces a ticket they give to the dancer that is later exchanged for money at the end of their shift.

"The thing is, the tickets, there are so many of them, they all look the same. They're so thin, they're so easy to lose or tear. If you lose it, that's your wage that you made that night that's gone – everything is gone," Tamara said.

"A lot of the time the club doesn't stock enough money or the machine that holds the money … it just breaks and they're like 'oh can't scan your tickets, hold on to them'.

"I reckon that the club owes me thousands of dollars. I had been asking for so long to the point where I just forgot about it, I had to just move on from it. It just got lost in the arbitrary idea of owed wages."

'Sham contracting'

For Raven, the worst aspect of the industry is the "sham contracting".

In some clubs, dancers are required to sign employment contracts that include fees and fines which can be deducted from their pay.

She said some might start a shift in the red and have to work to pay back money owed to the club before they make any earnings for themselves.

Fines can include $200 for wearing fake tan that is not dark enough, $100 for not getting completely naked on stage or $50 for using their phone.

In a statement, one club owner subject to allegations said his club was "one of few venues that do not have fines" for dancers.

Instead, he said they have a "house fee", which applies as "an encouragement for entertainers to be as professional as possible with start and finish times and the communication of their roster".

He said any staff found imposing fines on dancers would face disciplinary action for going against their "core company ethos".

Tamara said at many clubs, it paid to be friendly with management.

"If the manager doesn't like you or if they're in a bad mood or they're feeling pressure from upper management … they'll start fining everyone here and there for the most minor of things," she said.

"The worst kind of fine I've ever seen is the client breaking a rule and the dancer gets fined $200 for that," Eve said.

"Even if he's forcing himself on you, you could lose $200. And these fines can stack up through the night … if he breaks the rules 10 times, you'll get fined $200 every time."

Another club owner accused of workplace failures told the ABC their businesses face heavy regulation.

"They [the venues] are actively monitored by multiple local, state, and federal authorities and we have an excellent track record across all areas," the club owner said.

Maurice Blackburn's principal employment lawyer Giri Sivaraman said while the fines were "completely unfair", they were in fact legal for contract workers under current employment laws.

"If you're a contractor, you're out on your own. Whatever is in the contract is what determines what you get and if you don't have any bargaining power and you can't negotiate something decent in your contract, there's no recourse for you," he said.

"These women are definitely falling through the cracks in the law – and they're not cracks, they're chasms."

It comes amid a federal government push to change employment laws to give contractors and gig-economy workers with little bargaining power greater working rights.

"There's no clear defined way to go to Fair Work or for human rights action. They're very unfamiliar with how to respond to it and the process is quite long and by that point you're either fired or you need to move on," Raven said.

Sexual assault occurs 'every single night'

For sexually explicit entertainment to be performed in strip clubs, venues must hold an Adult Entertainment Permit.

Under current laws, authorised controllers must supervise adult entertainment, including lap dances, at all times to ensure neither the dancer nor the client is in breach of the permit's rules.

Tamara said sexual assault perpetrated by clients occurred regularly at one club, while controllers were busy pouring drinks on "completely the other side of the club".

"If we're going by what is legally defined as sexual assault by Australian law, then [it's happening in Brisbane] every single night," she said.

"There's digital penetration, which is rape, which is extremely common. Every dancer I know has had digital penetration happen to them without their consent.

"Management doesn't care. It's about the numbers for them. 'Don't make it a big deal so the customer can return, we want their money'.

"There's never anything that I know will happen for certain [if a client assaults you]. Management might kick him out depending on who he is, but if he's a big spender then no, he's not going to get kicked out.

"The most shocking and infuriating part of it is we're in a club where every man's ID is scanned ... we know that there are security cameras watching it all happen and yet there is no legal process [if a dancer is assaulted].

"All of the 'protections' – the controllers and the cameras and the security … it's all there to actually just control what we do, it's not there for our protection.

"A lot of the time, a client won't get kicked out if they've assaulted you because the club wants to make money off them," Eve said.

In a statement, the Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation (OLGR) said controllers were allowed to do more than one job while supervising adult entertainment but "must have a clear line of sight at all times" to ensure adult entertainment is provided in compliance with the law.

The OLGR said licensed strip clubs were inspected a minimum of four times a year and were also subject to unannounced compliance inspections.

It pointed to a "targeted program" it runs to address violence in venues, which involved "an intervention meeting with the licensee around controls to mitigate acts of violence".

In a statement, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) said it was committed to supporting victims of sexual assault and that a "liaison officer" worked to "improve outcomes for sex workers who are victims of crimes".

'Invisible' workers falling between the cracks

In a statement, the QLRC said it was reviewing the sex work industry and not the adult entertainment industry or the regulatory framework for licensed venues that provide adult entertainment.

Janelle Fawkes, spokesperson for sex worker advocacy group DecrimQld, said the commission's decision to exclude strippers from the review partly came down to semantics.

"We're very worried that the QLRC sees strippers as outside of the sex work community and doesn't understand how stripping works," she said. 

"We see that as being part of their decision [to exclude them from the review] and the rest being semantics."

Queensland University of Technology head of justice Professor John Scott said strippers were a "benign" cohort of the sex work industry that lacked visibility and as a result, were often sidelined from the conversation.

"They've been neglected in the sense that it's seen as being mostly non-tactile … and less fraught with some of the issues that may come up in more tactile and underground parts of the industry," he said.

"We're systematically separated from the rest of the sex work community, which is outrageous because we are sex workers," Raven said.

"We just fall between the cracks in the system and lose out on all these basic human rights.

Ms Fawkes has called for strippers to be included in the QLRC's review, for all sex work, including stripping to be fully decriminalised, for the removal of all police powers from the industry and for all sex workers to be given anti-discrimination protections.

The QLRC is expected to hand down its final report with a framework for a decriminalised sex work industry in November.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Related Stories
Career police officer swaps 30 years on force for job as a stripper
Michelle still dresses as a police officer, and arrests people in the crowd for 'being too sexy'
From analysis to the latest developments in health, read the most diverse news in one place.
Ex-policewoman swaps nicking crooks for stripping after ditching 30-year career
Michelle Walton, 51, gave up her 30-year career in the force to follow her dream of becoming a stripper - and now wears a police uniform, uses handcuffs and a truncheon and “arrests” audience members for “being too sexy”
Strip club's curious rules where dancers are expected to 'act like ladies' and not chew gum
Birmingham venue La Belle's offers lap dances, nude shows and burlesque, but performers must adhere to a long list of regulations
Former Inland Rail project director claims $14b freight line plans 'done in a rush'
A damning Senate report, ongoing community tension, and a looming government review hang over the Inland Rail, but is this vital infrastructure project really running off track?
Sexual assaults at gigs under spotlight after incident during Beddy Rays's performance
A sexual assault in a mosh pit at a gig in Hobart this month has prompted renewed discussion about women's safety at live music venues, and ways to change attitudes to prevent future incidents.
One place to find news on any topic, from hundreds of sites.
Strictly's Helen Skelton shares tender hug with Gorka after 'fiery relationship' on show
Strictly Come Dancing's Helen Skelton and Gorka Marquez were seen hugging ahead of their performance last night as the Spanish champ told the star to 'work on her sexiness'