A Look At Labor Rights, Or Lack Thereof, In The Modeling Industry

“In the Fashion Industry, models have faces, not voices,” a campaign video for the support of better rights for models begins.

When one is “in one day, out the next” in the cutthroat industry of fashion, there isn’t really much room to make complaints about working rights being violated, which another model notes in the footage.

As models are technically independent parties contracted for jobs under U.S. Law, they cannot legally unionize. Thus, the question then arises: How can models band together to fight for the employment rights to which they should be entitled? 

Model Sara Ziff, who has had a 15-year career so far (walking for designers like Calvin Klein, Chanel and Louis Vuitton), founded an organization Model Alliance in order to “provide a platform for models and leaders in fashion industry to organize to radically improve the conditions under which models work.” The Organization’s mission can be viewed here.

Ziff, who received a B.A. from Columbia University in political science with a focus in labor and community organizing, has compiled a team of models, professors, university administrators and heads of modeling agencies to demand better and just working conditions for models. For instance, in collaboration with Council of Fashion Designers in America (CFDA), they demanded prohibiting unauthorized photographers during this years’ fashion week in February from coming backstage and taking nude or semi-nude photos of models changing (this has been an issue in the past).

The organization drafted a model bill of rights that members are urging designers, modeling agencies and leaders in the industry to adopt, arguing that “We can do better” than the current state of affairs. Additionally, they are creating a way for models to anonymously report violations or abusive behavior.

Ziff has been modeling since she was 14 years old, and states in an interview with BBC, “I saw, first-hand, how sometimes the industry disregards child labor law, lacks financial transparency, encourages eating disorders, and even tolerates sexual abuse.”  The model bill of rights and the creation of her not-for-profit organization urge leaders in the industry to respect the rights of models, too.

A recent documentary, “Girl Model,” by David Redmon & Ashley Sabin (see a clip on the NYT site), follows the intertwining of the lives of a model scout, Ashley Arbaugh, who comes across  Nadya, a poor 13-year-old girl from Siberia in her search to find new faces for the Japanese market in Tokyo.  Nadya ends up heading back to Russia in debt after failed auditions, and after signing a contract which she didn’t understand (it being in English and Japanese, and not Russian–her only language).

The film opens with a scene of many young girls lined up and being criticized by various agents.  In combination with the works of Model Alliance, this film visually illustrates the the disillusion, coercion and potential manipulation that can occur in the modeling industry, not to mention the fact that in this case these things are happening to a young girl who is barely even a teenager.

Only time can tell how things will change. However, the push for an industry standard, partnered with the media attention and support that Ziff’s organization and this film have accrued, cannot be ignored.

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  1. says

    It’s been my experience that it is the modeling agencies themselves that are the worst culprits in the modeling industry, and this places models at a huge, dare I say insurmountable, disadvantage.

    The agencies hold the model’s funds, since the majority of them are not citizens of the country in which they work/live. That means that the agency gets the interest, gets to invest it, and gets to charge the model all sorts of “fees” every time she needs to withdraw any cash.

    The agencies hold the power over their visas. While it is the host country who obviously actually does the “approving/granting,” agencies get X amount of visas, which they then give to their best preforming models every year. If an agency isn’t willing to go to bat for a model, she gets shipped back home. This fact alone keeps most of the girls (and boys) tightlipped and compliant; if the agency decides not to extend a visa for them, they’ll be out of a job and most likely be less better off in whatever they end up doing back home. (And, as usual, the agencies charge all lawyer fees to the model’s themselves.)

    The agencies decide what jobs and castings the models go on, and models are largely kept in the dark as to what their own going rate is. It’s an industry standard. Agencies are responsible for collecting the model’s payments, but if a client decides not to pay the agencies rarely do anything – it’s more important to preserve ties/cordial relations with a brand or photographer than it is to hound them for the $500 they owe one of their models. It’s not like the girl’s actually need to make money, right?

    And that’s just the agencies. Then you have the seriously twisted photographers and hangers on who promise fame and money for all sorts of “favors”.

    Expecting those who benefit most from the industry’s obnoxious and dishonest practices to comply with, or at the very least support, a model bill of rights seems sadly unrealistic.

    Hearing the horror stories of my friends in the industry has made one thing clear: the models are chattel, there’s a lot of mutual backscratching going on, and it’s not going to change anytime soon because there are 100,000 other pretty, lithe things who would kill to get out of the slum they’re currently in and take the place of the ones who decides to speak up for themselves.