Nidhi Sunil (center) speaking at a Fashion Workers Act Rally on May 1, with Sen. Brad Hoylman (left). Photo: Reed Young, courtesy of Model Alliance

By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

New York City is the center of the fashion industry in the United States. Currently, New York’s fashion scene employs nearly 180,000 workers including models, hair stylists and makeup artists. While these workers only account for 6% of New York City’s workforce, the industry generates $10.9 billion in wages, according to NYC International Business. New York’s fashion industry contributes to the lore that makes the city so iconic — around 230,000 visitors come to fashion week every year. However, the industry is also one of the most unregulated and exploitative in the world. A new bill, the Fashion Workers Act, seeks to change that. 

While New York has come a long way in offering labor protections to various industries, the fashion industry continues to fall behind. The Model Alliance, a nonprofit that works to advance labor rights in the fashion industry, along with Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Karines Reyes, brought forth the Fashion Workers Act.

“What the Fashion Workers Act would do is regulate modeling management companies. Those are the entities that get models working for a fee, [as well as] creative management companies, companies that hire creatives such as photographers, makeup artists and hairdressers,” says Hoylman, who co-sponsored the bill. “These types of entities are not covered by New York regulations concerning employment. So it’s the Wild West.”

Fashion workers, more commonly models, come to New York with big dreams, and oftentimes management companies take advantage of their excitement by roping fashion workers into contracts that do not benefit the worker and are impossible to break. 

“Many of them are just trying to get their big break and they’re willing to put up with a lot to do so. It’s a very competitive industry based on a lot of intangible factors outside of one’s control, like talent and appearance,” Hoylman says. “I think a lot of these models and creatives are often taken for granted and treated as if it should be a privilege to be in the industry.”

Sydney Giordano, associate director of the Model Alliance says she often hears complaints from models through the organization’s support line. 

“We hear from models who are locked into these self-renewing contracts that they are not legally allowed to get out of, and their management is not actually required to book them work,” she says. “We hear a lot from people saying ‘I’m racking up a lot of debt and I’m not working. My management is not getting me work but I can’t leave. I have two more years in my contract and its exclusive.’”

In New York, management companies that employ models and creatives (such as hairstylists or makeup artists) differ from talent agencies. Talent agencies are required to be licensed by the state and follow certain regulations and basic rights that models aren’t usually afforded, like paying their workers on time. The lack of regulations makes it easy for model management companies to exploit their talent. Models and creatives are also considered independent contractors so they are not able to unionize, making it even harder to band together and speak up. 

“There is this perception that fashion workers are incredibly privileged when in reality, we are talking about a very young, mostly female and largely immigrant workforce,” Giordano says. “We are talking about 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year olds, many of whom are coming from other countries and on a work visa — which are usually sponsored by the management company.”

Nidhi Sunil is a model and L’Oreal global ambassador who came to the U.S. for the first time from India in 2015 when she was 28 years old. If the Fashion Workers Act becomes law, it would change her life. 

“The Fashion Workers Act holds special significance for me as a person of color with an Indian passport, who doesn’t just rely on the sympathy of her management team for her finances, but also for her immigration status across New York, the United Kingdom and Europe in order to pursue a career as an international model,” she says. 

Sunil is a recipient of the O-1 visa, a worker’s visa that was made possible by her management company. 

“The terrifying reality of being a model is to be stuck in a foreign country on a work visa that puts all my agency in the hands of a third party with no financial security,” she said in a press conference. “It is truly astonishing that creatives in the fashion industry lack the same statutory recognition and protections afforded to our peers in other industries.”

Getting paid on time and having copies of the contract you sign is a right for workers across the state, but not for those in the fashion industry. Months pass before a hair stylist gets paid for a job and a model may have to sign a contract where the only copy is held by the management company. 

“There are no standards of employment. There is no requirement that the management company provides them auditing of the services,” Hoylman says. “Sometimes they are forced to pay out of their own pockets for a whole host of expenses including travel and other expenditures. They also often have to pay rent to their management companies at unfair and inequitable portions of the fee they receive.” Models and creatives may be coming in from different parts of the world without a place to stay, management often provides housing — but sometimes at very high rates. 

It’s very difficult for models to make a complaint to their company if they feel as if they are being mistreated, because as Giordano puts it, “they are not employees, there is no H.R. for them.” Fashion workers, especially models, can lose their entire careers by making a complaint. If they were abused or assaulted they may be told to report to the very person who abused them, exploited them or was complicit in the abuse. 

“Retaliation is very real,” Giordano says. “Workers in this industry tend to have very short careers. There is a year or so when a model is the ‘flavor of the month’ and then they can end up being out. There is a lot on the line. There is a dream that’s being sold and they don’t want to do anything to risk that.”

The Fashion Workers Act would change the industry by holding management companies accountable for exploiting fashion workers. The act will hold them to a set of standards, similar to those of talent agencies, and create basic protections for fashion workers. 

Some protections the Fashion Workers Act will make management companies enforce are:

  • Accept the responsibility to act in the best interests of their talent.
  • Pay models and creatives within 45 days of completing a job. 
  • Provide models and creatives with copies of contracts and agreements.
  • Forbid management companies from taking retaliatory action against any model or creative using the bill to file a complaint

See the rest of the protections here.

“It’s important to have this act in place because there is a huge significant workforce in New York that does not have basic rights and protections on the job and that is plain wrong,” Giordano  says . “Models and creatives are workers who deserve rights and protections on the job just like everybody else that works for a living.”

How to get involved and help:

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