One hundred and eleven years ago today, the garment industry gave birth to the American labor movement at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, which killed 146 workers, mostly young women and girls. Their preventable deaths helped deliver the rights and protections many workers in the U.S. enjoy today, and yet they elude the same mostly young, female workforce of a previous era: fashion workers.
A new bill, the Fashion Workers Act, is set to address this exploitation. It will be introduced today—on the anniversary of the March 25, 1911, fire which supercharged the American labor rights movement.
New York is the global center of the fashion industry. And for the state, it’s quite the moneymaker: New York Fashion Week draws more than 230,000 visitors to the city and generates close to $600 million in income each year.
That is more than the economic impact of Milan, Paris and London’s fashion weeks combined. Yet, the creative workforce that supports this seemingly glamorous industry—including models, stylists, makeup artists and hair stylists—are treated like chattel by the unregulated and often predatory agencies they rely on for work.
Despite their independent contractor status, in almost every case models are forced to enter into contracts that grant their agencies “power of attorney,” giving agencies power to accept payments on their behalf, deposit checks and deduct expenses, as well as book jobs, negotiate their rate of pay, and give third parties permission to use their image—often without notifying or paying them for either.
Models sign multi-year, exclusive contracts with agencies who are under no obligation to book jobs or pay them in a timely manner—with many models waiting months, even years, to get paid for work they’ve completed. When I left my first agency, they simply refused to pay me my earnings until I got a lawyer involved. At every agency I was signed to over my decades-long career, I had to ask repeatedly to be paid, and in one case it took 11 years. The time and energy it took to collect my earnings often felt like a job itself.
When models finally do receive their checks, they’ll often find numerous unexplained fees deducted from their pay in addition to the 20 percent commission—from the cost of being featured on the agency website to “e-sending,” i.e. email. At one of my agencies, hundreds of dollars were deducted from my and other models’ accounts to purchase artwork for the CEO.
Agencies will also negotiate payment “in trade,” meaning just clothing, which doesn’t pay the bills. The end result is that many models become trapped in cycles of debt to their agency, making them highly vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Creatives face many of the same issues with shady bookkeeping. A photographer friend was stunned when he learned directly from a client that his former agency had been defrauding him to the tune 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 not only were they withholding his earnings for renewed usage of his images, but they had also been selling his work at one rate while telling him the client would only pay half of his day rate and pocketing the difference.
Modeling agencies are also notorious for crowding young models into “model apartments,” where six to 10 young women live cramped together in bunk beds and are each charged upwards of $2,000 a month for a one- or two-bedroom unit that’s worth far less in market value.
If a model needs money to cover her basic expenses, such as groceries, an agency will charge her interest to “advance” her money, entrenching her further in debt. It’s not surprising that young models often fall prey to promoters who recruit them for “free dinners” with rich, older businessmen.
How is this legal?
It shouldn’t be, but models don’t garner much public sympathy because they’re seen as unworthy of serious attention. The first and most obvious reason is that we’re talking about a primarily female workforce, subject to the same sexism and misogyny as any other. The second is that models appear to have glamorous lives filled with social and cultural cachet as a result of simply winning a genetic lottery. That’s a fantasy true for only a handful of people at the top of the pyramid in what is otherwise a winner-take-all industry.
Models’ weights, measurements and hair are surveilled by an entity that controls their financial future, but is under no legal obligation to actually be financially transparent, negotiate rates that are fair, or advance their career. Models—many of whom are too young to advocate for themselves or come from developing countries and rely on their agency as their visa sponsor—are taught to suck it up because the agency can always find another girl to take her place.
The fact is this is work, and people deserve to get paid for their work. There shouldn’t be an exception for fashion workers. The Fashion Workers Act, sponsored by New York state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Karines Reyes, would eliminate many of these predatory behaviors and bring management companies representing models and creatives into the sunlight of regulation.
The bill would require that agencies pay models and creatives within 45 days of completing a job (clients must pay the agencies within 30 days to make that possible), provide notice of any royalties collected from talent they no longer represent, and accept their fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of their talent.
The bill would also forbid agencies from engaging in bad practices such as charging more than the fair market rate for accommodation, deducting any other fee or expenses from talents’ pay other than the agreed upon commission, and collecting signing fees from 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 the last few years, these issues are of course even more stark for models and creatives of color. Last but not least, models and creatives would have a safe channel to file complaints of violations of the law.
New York gains not just in the economic boost that comes with being the center of fashion, but it also benefits from the cultural capital that status confers as well. More than a century after the Triangle fire, New York has a responsibility to the workforce who have built up its revenue and reputation—and to the rest of the industry to lead by example.