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More than a minor issue: child labour during Fashion Week

by Sara Ziff

 

As New York Fashion Week draws to a close and the attention of the fashion world moves to London, Milan and then Paris, child labour is not what most people will be thinking about as they watch lanky models parade down the catwalk.

The perceived glamour of the modelling profession diverts attention from the unsavory side of a business that remains essentially unregulated and often relies on a labour force of children who are valued for their compliant behaviour and their adolescent physique.

As a model who started working at the age of 14, I have been lucky in my career.

But I have also experienced firsthand the inappropriate demands that no child – no person – should ever have to deal with: sexual harassment; long working hours without meals, rest breaks or even monetary pay; pressures to pose nude and forfeit high school education; opaque bookkeeping and wage theft.

These problems are as common as they are difficult for models to report without risking their job.

About 100 years ago, New York became the first state in the United States to establish child labour laws on the belief that a free, progressive society could not exist while children toiled in factories. Yet, to this day, child models, uniquely among child performers in New York, are not covered under labour law.

And unlike other performers, such as actors, dancers and musicians, models in the US lack union protection.

This lack of protection is no accident.

Although essentially all working models operate under exclusive contracts to their agencies – who control their access to clients and work schedules, book their jobs, and collect their earnings – modelling agencies have argued for decades that models are independent contractors, not employees.

And because they are aren’t employees, they cannot legally unionise, nor are they covered by laws that entitle them to minimum wage and ban sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other unacceptable behaviour in almost all workplaces.

 

Legislation

Last year, with the support of other models and the performers’ unions, Actors Equity and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), I formed the Model Alliance, a not-for-profit labour group for models working in the US fashion industry.

In June, with State Senators Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino, we introduced legislation that would afford child models the same protections as other child performers working in New York.

Soon after, the bill passed both houses of the New York Legislature unanimously.

When signed into law, the legislation will recognize models under the age of eighteen as child performers – a category in which print and runway models are notably absent – and child models will legally be afforded the same protections as child actors, dancers and musicians working in New York.

These regulations not only include provisions for mandatory financial trusts and the presence of chaperones and tutors on set (amongst others), but they are overseen by the Department of Labor, which possesses far greater resources to enforce regulations than the Department of Education (the agency which currently oversees regulations pertaining to the employment and education of child models in New York).

New York City is hailed as the fashion capital of the world, and with many models like me beginning their careers in their early teens, this legislation is vital to ensuring these young workers are protected under the law.

It could also encourage employers to hire women, instead of adolescent girls, to model designs that are marketed to adults.

In short, empowering models as workers could transform the face of fashion.

 

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