June 11, 2012 • In web :: Features
Modelling Workers’ Rights
Model and community organizer Sara Ziff speaks up for models’ rights in the fashion industry.
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What do those additional charges include?
Those additional charges include messenger fees, car service, composite cards, printing and scanning, and rent to live in the model apartment. These charges are billed against the model’s prospective earnings and are automatically deducted from her account. Essentially this means that most models start working in debt to their agencies, and models do not see their first paycheck until they book work that is greater than the sum of their debts. Models have told me about “e-sending” charges. A friend of mine went to her agency and asked, “What is this e-sending fee for $350?” And the person in the accounting department said, “That’s for the e-sending of your material.” So she said, “Are you charging me for e-mail?” And the accountant said, “Yeah, we basically divide the cost of our Internet service between all of the models.” So the bookkeeping can be pretty opaque. And getting paid can be an ordeal. Payments are slow and sometimes they don’t come at all. If the client doesn’t pay, the model takes the loss, not the agency. So what in some way resembles indentured servitude is [actually] part of the independent contractor agreement.
There was a class-action lawsuit about six years ago that models brought against the major agencies in New York. The suit was for collusion, for price-fixing, for charging bogus fees. The lawsuit was settled for many millions of dollars, but models were so disorganized as a class that they didn’t collect. Something like $6 million went to charity!
Have there been other efforts to collectively organize models in New York?
There was a union for models called the Models’ Guild that existed about 10 years ago in New York. It actually made some progress. It established a health insurance plan. It put statutory rapists in jail and closed the doors of bogus agencies. The Guild did a lot of good work. But once they went to state legislators and said, “Hey, we think that we’ve been misclassified as ‘independent contractors,’ we’re actually treated more like employees,” my understanding is that agencies caught wind of this, and basically got some of their top talent to rally against the union effort, and it dissolved.
Organizing models is like herding cats. You’re dealing with a labour force of children. A lot of models are 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. By the time you’re 25, you’re at retirement age. There’s such a high turnover rate. And you’re dealing with a global market: a lot of these girls are undocumented workers, they don’t have working papers, sometimes they don’t speak English very well, a lot of them have dropped out of school.
I also think a lot of models are under the spell of “you’re so lucky to be part of this glamorous industry,” and they buy into it. So when you’re organizing workers whose job is to project effortlessness and flawlessness and glamour, it’s hard even for them to recognize how unglamorous their profession can be. To acknowledge this is to recognize the myth and break the spell. It goes against everything that we’re hired to embody.
In that sense, the effort to improve models’ working conditions faces a double challenge in terms of representation: the “herding cats” challenge you mentioned, but also the challenge of contesting glamorous media representations.
Right. It’s interesting because recently I filmed the Domestic Workers United campaign, where they’re organizing nannies and cleaners. I interviewed these remarkable women. They kept saying, “We’re an invisible work force.” I couldn’t help but think that, as models, we’re the most visible workforce, and yet this actually works against us. People aren’t sympathetic because they see these images and it looks like we’re in a glamorous business and we are being treated like goddesses when, in fact, clients disregard child labour laws – you’re looking at images of kids who have been pressured to drop out of school and sometimes do work that is not age appropriate – often we’re not getting paid any money for our work, and we’re working very long hours.
Getting public support for our work is tough because, as Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, fashion models are this elite corps who are deployed to “‘keep 150 million American women in line,”’ when, in fact, there are a select few models who are making the big bucks and who are managed properly and really treated well. Fair labour standards shouldn’t depend on celebrity.
The age of the supermodel is over. Models used to be household names. Think of Naomi Campbell or Cindy Crawford or Christy Turlington. They commanded huge sums. They were really able to throw their weight around and make demands. Today, most models don’t even have the clout to turn down a non-paying job.