One hundred and eleven years ago today, the garment industry gave birth to the American labor movement when the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in Manhattan killed 146 workers, mostly young women and girls. Their preventable deaths helped secure the rights and protections enjoyed by many workers in the United States today, and yet they escape the same, mostly young, female workforce of an earlier era: female workers. of fashion.
A new bill, the Fashion Workers Act, is planned to combat this exploitation. It will be presented today, on the anniversary of the fire of March 25, 1911, which supercharged the American movement for workers’ rights.
New York is the world center of the fashion industry. And for the state, it’s pretty profitable: New York Fashion Week brings more than 230,000 visitors to the city and generates nearly $600 million in revenue each year.
That’s more than the economic impact of Milan, Paris and London fashion weeks combined. Yet the creative workforce that sustains this seemingly glamorous industry – including models, stylists, makeup artists and hairdressers – is treated like chattel by the unregulated and often predatory agencies they rely on for the job. work.
Despite their independent contractor status, in almost all cases, models are forced to enter into contracts that grant their agencies “power of attorney,” giving agencies the power to accept payments on their behalf, deposit checks and deduct expenses, as well as book jobs, negotiate their rate of pay, and allow third parties to use their likeness, often without notice or payment for either.
Models sign exclusive multi-year contracts with agencies that are not required to book jobs or pay them in a timely manner. Many models wait months or even years to be paid for the work they have done. When I left my first agency, they just refused to pay me my earnings until I got a lawyer. At every agency I was signed with over my decades of career, I had to repeatedly ask to be paid, and in one case it took 11 years. The time and energy it took to collect my income often felt like a job in itself.
When models finally receive their checks, they often find many unexplained fees deducted from their salary on top of the 20% commission – from the cost of being featured on the agency’s website to “emailing”, i.e. email. At one of my agencies, hundreds of dollars were deducted from my account and those of other models to purchase artwork for the CEO.
“The end result is that many models find themselves trapped in cycles of indebtedness to their agency, which leaves them highly vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual abuse.”
— Sara Zif
Agencies will also negotiate payment “in trade”, i.e. clothing only, which does not pay the bills. The end result is that many models find themselves trapped in cycles of indebtedness to their agency, which leaves them highly vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Creatives face many of the same issues with dodgy accounting. A photographer friend was stunned when he learned directly from a client that his former agency had defrauded him out of tens of thousands of dollars. When he inquired about these “irregularities in accounting”, his agency refused to open their books.
It was only because he sued them in civil court that he discovered that they were not only withholding his income for renewed use of his images, but also selling his work at a rate while he saying that the customer would only pay half of their daily rate and pocket the difference.
Modeling agencies have also been known to cram young models into “model apartments”, where six to ten young women live cramped in bunk beds and are each charged more than $2,000 a month for a unit of one or two bedrooms worth much less in market value.
If a model needs money to cover basic expenses, like groceries, an agency will charge her interest to “advance” her money, putting her further into debt. It’s no surprise that young models often fall prey to promoters who recruit them for “free dinners” with wealthy, older businessmen.
How is it legal?
It shouldn’t be, but the models don’t garner much sympathy from the public as they are considered unworthy of serious attention. The first and most obvious reason is that it is a predominantly female workforce, subject to the same sexism and misogyny as any other. The second is that the models seem to have glamorous lives filled with social and cultural cachet due to the simple act of winning a genetic lottery. It’s a true fantasy for only a handful of people at the top of the pyramid in what is otherwise a win-win industry.
Models’ weight, measurements, and hair are monitored by an entity that controls their financial future, but has no legal obligation to be financially transparent, negotiate fair rates, or advance their careers. Models – many of whom are too young to defend themselves or come from developing countries and rely on their agency as a visa sponsor – learn to suck because the agency can always find another girl to replace her.
The point is, it’s work, and people deserve to be paid for their work. There should be no exception for fashion workers. The Fashion Workers Act, sponsored by New York State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, would eliminate many of these predatory behaviors and place management companies representing models and creatives in the sun of regulations.
“New York not only enjoys the economic boost that comes with being the center of fashion, but it also benefits from the cultural capital that status also confers.”
— Sara Zif
The bill would require agencies to pay models and creatives within 45 days of completing a job (clients must pay agencies within 30 days for this to be possible), notify all royalties collected from talents they no longer represent and accept their fiduciary responsibility. act in the best interest of their talent.
The bill would also prohibit agencies from engaging in malpractices such as charging more than the fair market rate for accommodation, deducting any other fees or expenses from talent compensation other than the agreed-upon commission, and collecting fees. signature models, to name a few.
The bill also includes an anti-discrimination provision because, despite the industry’s superficial embrace of greater diversity and inclusion in recent years, these issues are of course even more serious for models and creatives. of color. Last but not least, models and creatives would have a safe channel to file complaints for violations of the law.
New York not only enjoys the economic boost that comes with being the center of fashion, but it also benefits from the cultural capital that status also confers. More than a century after the Triangle fire, New York has a responsibility to the workforce that built its income and reputation, and to the rest of the industry to lead by example.