How to Solve Models Labor Problem?

Sara Ziff, Founder and Executive Director of the Model Alliance (Credit: Nikola Tamindzic)

Sara Ziff, Founder and Executive Director of the Model Alliance (Credit: Nikola Tamindzic)

By now, we all know what the labor problems with the modeling industry are: underage workers, sexual harassment, rape, low to no pay, extreme working conditions, drugs, nepotism, racism, scams, forced eating disorders and the list goes on to amount to some rather obscene stuff. There is more partiality over jobs than what jobs actually exist. Magazine covers are exclusively reserved for the children of the “establishment” rather than for the value of aesthetics. Advertising campaigns, runways, catalogs and commercials are filled with more girlfriends, boyfriends, cousins, aunts, friends and friends of friend’s daughters that did us that favor one time when we were in trouble with the IRS than they are qualified workers. Do we have an industry or do we have a hobby?

The fashion industry is plagued with systemic problems and they are getting more and more obvious. It is heavily if not wholly reliant on the labor of children and undocumented workers. New York Fashion Week is not NYFW. It is Euro-Week in New York. You see a beautiful, European-esque young girl on the runway and think “prestige”, but what we really have is a barely legal, undocumented worker who may not eat tonight and is probably not getting paid. Welcome to America – the Model America!

In recent year The Model Alliance has made some very important headway in advocating for the protection of underage models under the New York State Law for Child Performers. It has been a great move in bringing attention and supporting the message that there is definitely a deep burdening problem throughout the industry. A problem we should be ashamed of as we rally for labor rights in China over Apple Computer manufacturing, we easily glorify nothing more than human trafficking here. There is still so much more work to do. There is a dark side to this business and it is a catch twenty-two because of two factors: Agencies, and the fact the models are Independent Contractors. There are no unions for models so there is no buffer between the agencies and the labor force. As a result, models lack union protection.

I’m always asked about what I think about the labor issues in the modeling industry and it is a mixed bag being that I have had an overall positive experience. During my teenage years in New York, I was a bit more outspoken than most. I knew how to shut down advances from photographers, how to avoid Champaign and Cocaine and how to not get caught up in the agency paradigm of indentured servitude. I also wasn’t after immediate fame, fortune or a rich boyfriend so my personal experience has been quite different but I have been among those models that have suffered, got caught up and lost.

If the modeling industry is really a freelance market than it should be just like that. However, we all know laissez-faire doesn’t work. If it did we wouldn’t be experiencing the problems that we are. Agencies should be decentralized. They should be turn into marketing companies (which is what is happening anyway) but they should not have dominance over the labor force as they presently do. Too much control in one place leads to corruption. Agencies position themselves to control access to clients, bookings wages, bookkeeping and accounting systems. The control, the work schedules and the entire lives of agency represented models. However, agencies are quick to relieve themselves of power and control by stating that models are independent contractors.

I think models should remain largely Independent Contractors. I also think there should be traditional employers as well such as we are seeing in a smaller context of certain online retailers and so forth. Having experience as an agency represented model and as a freelance model, I will say that I have enjoyed my career and the fruits from it much more as a freelance model. Agencies can be like an abusive relationship where they create interdependency to the point that the model cannot function on her own, may be exploited, pressured into inappropriate circumstances. Up until The Model Alliance, a reporting system did not exist. Now at least the idea is in the minds of the labor force even if it isn’t full being leveraged.

Although the Model Alliance is not a union, I do think there should be a union but not like SAG (Screen Actors Guild). The SAG union structure has its own challenges but I believe this discussion should be a shared vision among the labor force – and not the agencies, publishing companies, media houses and vertically integrated fashion empires. It should be among the workers first. The problem is that most of the workers don’t have a voice and do not know that they should because they are too young, they don’t speak a common language and there is no education or awareness. We have a voiceless society of workers with a misguided public.