Supermodels, unions call for better working conditions in the fashion industry during New York Fashion Week

Photo Sep 12, 09 15 20
Photo courtesy of Model Alliance

In the midst of New York Fashion Week, models, unions and lawmakers are rallying to put regulations in place to protect those in the modeling industry.

The Model Alliance was joined by supermodels Karen Elson, Ambra Battilana-Gutierrez and Kaja Sokola — who were both abused by Harvey Weinstein — as well as State Senator Brad Hoylman and the Freelancers’ Union on Sept. 12 to call for the pro-labor legislation that would regulate predatory management agencies that currently operate without oversight.

As a $2.5 trillion global industry, the fashion industry employed 4.6 percent of New York City’s workforce pre-pandemic. Despite this, basic labor practices are not present, affecting not just models but also stylists, makeup artists, hair stylists, influences and other creative artists.  The Fashion Workers Act – which passed the Senate Labor Committee before the State Legislative session ended earlier this year – would close this loophole and provide a regulatory framework for management agencies.

“I’m tired of the loopholes in the fashion industry that leave models in cycles of debt and enrich everyone else. We must be treated equally and hold everyone accountable to the same standards of any other workplace,” said Battilana Gutierrez.

“Fashion is a huge economic driver in New York State – case in point, New York Fashion Week generates almost double what the Super Bowl brought when it was hosted here. Yet, the creative workforce driving this industry – models, makeup artists, stylists and others – still lacks basic labor protections,” said Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance. “That’s unacceptable – as the fashion capital, we should be setting the industry standard. Yet, New York derives huge benefit off the backs of young women and girls who are essentially indentured, working off a debt they can never repay to predatory management agencies. The Fashion Workers Act is a necessary and urgent step, and we hope Albany lawmakers will finally close the carve out that leaves this uniquely vulnerable workforce out in the cold.”

Modeling and creative agencies are considered to be management companies under the New York State General Business Law §171(8), known as the “incidental booking exception,” allowing them to escape licensing and regulation. In almost every case, these agencies are granted “power of attorney” over their talent as a part of their agreement to represent them, giving them the power to accept payments on behalf of the model, deposit checks and deduct expenses, as well as book jobs, negotiate the model’s rate of pay, and give third parties permission to use the model’s image. Models and creatives then typically wait months (and even years) to be paid for their work through the management companies, which then deduct a variety of unexplained fees from their pay.

Meanwhile, these companies hold models and creatives to exclusive, multi-year contracts and sponsor their work visas, yet then they insist that no obligation to book jobs, leaving these workers in cycles of debt and making them much more vulnerable to abuse, including human trafficking.

If passed, the Fashion Workers act would require management agencies to accept responsibility to act in the best interests of their talent and pay the models and creatives within 45 days of completing a job. They would also have to provide those models and creatives with copies of contracts and agreements, notify former models and creatives if the management collects royalties from a talent they no longer represent, register and deposit a surety bond of $50,000 with the NYS Department of State and conduct a reasonable inquiry into health and safety on set.

On the flip side, management agencies will have to stop bad practices such as collecting signing fees or deposits from models, charging more than the daily fair market rate for accommodation and deducting any other fee or expense than the agreed-upon commission. Management will also be prohibited from renewing the contract without the model or creative’s affirmative consent, imposing a commission fee greater than twenty percent of the model or creative’s compensation, taking retaliatory action against any model or creative using the bill to file a complaint, or engaging in discrimination or harassment any kind against talent on the basis of race, ethnicity, and other legally permissible categories under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“The best look this Fashion Week is treating fashion workers properly and compensating them fairly. Models and creatives are currently unprotected by state law, and their agencies lack financial transparency and accountability when it comes to issues of both payment and sexual abuse,” State Senator Brad Hoylman said. “There is no question that fashion is one of New York’s most iconic industries, and its workers should be afforded the same protections as any other laborer. To keep this industry sustainable and become non-exploitative, New York must pass our Fashion Workers Act.”

“A legal loophole puts thousands of creatives in the fashion industry at the mercy of the management agencies that oversee them,” said Assembly Member Karines Reyes. “The Fashion Worker’s Act would put a stop to the exploitative and predatory practices of these agencies. I look forward to working with Senator Hoylman to ensure that these workers are able to receive the full labor protections that New York State has to offer.”

“New York cannot allow another New York Fashion Week to go by without recognizing what’s happening behind the scenes with its workers. Our city is the fashion capital of the world because of the people working to ensure the industry’s success. Yet, too many of those workers are being exploited of their wages, while billions of dollars flow through the industry and our city’s and state’s economy,” said Rafael Espinal, President of the Freelancers Union. The Fashion Workers Act will finally give models, photographers, makeup ar”tists and others the wage protections they desperately need and deserve. Freelancers Union is proud to support the Model Alliance and Senator Hoylman in their efforts.”