Models Take Center Stage in Albany, Urging Lawmakers to Pass Fashion Workers Act

Alyssa Sutherland, Ashley Grace, Nidhi Sunil and more rally with lawmakers to protect tens of thousands of models within the $2.5 trillion fashion industry; The Fashion Workers Act also aims to regulate the recent rise of AI in fashion

ALBANY, NY (04/15/2024) (readMedia)-- On Monday, current and former models joined the Model Alliance and lawmakers at the State Capitol to rally for basic labor protections for models working in New York. Models, often perceived as symbols of glamor and prestige, find themselves in a starkly different reality behind the scenes, subjected to a multitude of exploitative practices in the $2.5 trillion fashion industry. Management companies too often subject their talent to unfair contracts, wage theft, sexual abuse, and discrimination. Models are rallying for the Fashion Workers Act, advocating for essential labor protections and striving to bring the fashion industry in line with the standards of other industries.

The Fashion Workers Act, the Model Alliance's signature bill, is a pro-labor bill that would regulate predatory management companies in New York that currently operate without oversight in the fashion industry – ensuring models and fashion workers have basic protections in the workplace. Sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember Karines Reyes, the legislation passed in the State Senate last spring. New amendments were incorporated into the Fashion Workers Act as a necessary first step in establishing baseline protections for models around transparency and consent for the use of generative AI.

"This is a labor fight, plain and simple, but models are unjustifiably lagging in basic workplace protections. In a $2.5 trillion industry, it's disheartening that the very faces of fashion - many of whom are young, underage girls - continue to be subjected to financially opaque, exploitative work environments. Transparency and consent are non-negotiables, and models deserve a legal framework that protects them as workers, just like in any other industry in New York," said Sara Ziff, Founder and Executive Director of the Model Alliance.

"Fashion workers deserve equal access to rights like other workers in traditional fields" said Assembly Member Karines Reyes, R.N. "I am proud to be the Assembly sponsor of the New York State Fashion Workers Act, because as the nature of work changes, our laws need to change too. Creative workers should have access to basic protections from harassment, wage theft, the misuse of their image, and other forms of dehumanization. I am hopeful that my colleagues in the Legislature will pass this critical piece of legislation and protect workers from these abuses."

"New York City's fashion sector employs 180,000 people, accounting for 6% of the city's workforce and generating $10.9 billion in total wages. New York must ensure that creative workers in this important industry aren't exploited. Our Fashion Workers Act creates workplace protections for models that will help ensure they are treated - and compensated - fairly. I'm thankful for the incredible advocacy efforts of Sara Ziff and the Model Alliance and look forward to passing our bill with Assembly Member Reyes this session," said State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal.

"The trauma of my sexual assault while modeling shattered my ability to feel safe in the fashion industry and in life. If the Fashion Workers Act had been in place in 2008, not only could it have shielded me from retaliation for speaking out, but it might have also prevented the assault altogether by mandating safety measures like chaperones at photoshoots. It's time for New York's lawmakers to ensure no one else in the fashion industry remains vulnerable and unprotected," said former actress and model Ashley Grace.

"I was a model for 15 years before I pivoted to acting and during that time I lived under constant fear and simply never felt safe. My life was dictated by an agency that made $8000 a month cramming 8 girls into a tiny two bedroom apartment, considered anything I borrowed an advance with an additional 5% interest added, and essentially cut me off from the possibility of earning money because they told me I needed to lose weight. When I became an actor I was shocked to have a safety net, where my talent management, agent, and lawyer were all working in my best interest. While I consider myself one of the lucky ones, I continue to advocate for the Fashion Workers Act because models deserve to work under a regulated system that makes it a standard practice to value physical and emotional safety," said model and actress Alyssa Sutherland.

"It is truly astonishing that creatives in the fashion industry lack the same statutory recognition and protections afforded to our peers in other industries. The Fashion Workers Act holds special significance for me as PoC 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 UK and Europe in order to pursue a career as an International model. It's absolutely imperative for lawmakers to pass this legislation and make a clear statement that one of the biggest and most profitable industries in the world has an obligation to its workers like any other - massive appreciation to the team at Model Alliance for their ongoing leadership," said model and L'Oreal Global Ambassador Nidhi Sunil.

"It's completely unacceptable that right now, there is a heavily altered digital replica of me out there that's being used for profit without my consent. The misuse of our images as models is not a new problem, but with the rise of AI, it's getting much worse. Lawmakers must pass the Fashion Workers Act to place power back in the hands of workers and give us the right to consent to the use of our digital replicas," said model Robyn Lawley.

"I felt miserable being held on a short leash by my management agency, who I was financially dependent on, and yet who didn't give me a proper explanation about how much I was earning or the deductions from my account. The industry is mostly unregulated and we need the Fashion Workers Act to create basic protections. We're not asking for much, just basic respect," said Kaja Sokola.

"In the heart of New York's bustling fashion scene, where creativity knows no bounds, we find a paradox: while the industry shines bright with its glamorous showcases and economic prowess, the very hands that weave its fabric remain shrouded in vulnerability and exploitation," said State Senator Robert Jackson. "It's time to close the curtain on this injustice and stitch together a fairer future, where every model, influencer, and artist is not just seen, but valued and protected. The Fashion Workers Act isn't just about changing laws; it's about weaving a safety net, a path towards dignity, fairness, and accountability to fit the needs of every creative soul who fuels this industry's pulse."

"Every day we are fighting for labor justice for every marginalized person, especially women and women of color. It is a shame that so many agencies in the fashion industry, which profit billions off the backs of fashion workers, are continuing to skirt the system and underpay their laborers. Their unscrupulous practices, including unfair contracts, delayed pay and unjustified fees must stop! Today is about holding modeling agencies accountable and enforcing fair labor practices. Modeling agencies must stop exploiting fashion workers and pay their fair share. I will always support fair wages for every laborer," said New York State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas.

"The fashion industry accounts for 6% of New York City's workforce, yet the hardworking artists, designers, models, and influencers that make this possible are not afforded basic labor protections. I am proud to co-sponsor A5631 to close the legal loophole by which management companies can withhold compensation for extended periods of time. This bill will also create protections from retaliatory action, discrimination, harassment, and visa actions when an employee makes a report to the Department of Labor," said Assemblymember Harvey Epstein.

"The Fashion Workers Act is a step in the right direction to ensure that all New York workers, regardless of the industry they work in, receive basic employee protections. Workers must be protected against unfair labor practices, exploitation and situations that jeopardize their personal safety. As Chair of the Legislative Women's Caucus, I am proud to cosponsor this legislation to support greater accountability and safety in this industry which largely employs women and girls," said Assemblymember Kimberly Jean-Pierre.

The misuse of AI technology presents new challenges for models, especially of color. Last year - after walking in a fashion show - 21 year old Taiwanese-American model, Shereen Wu discovered her face replaced with an AI generated white woman on top of her body, yet she never received payment for her work. Brands have repurposed models' images without consent or compensation for over a decade, but the growing threat of AI technology exacerbates the issues in an already unregulated industry. Major brands like Levi's are using AI to supplement models of color for their campaigns, creating a lack of representation and jobs for humans within the workforce.

In January, the Model Alliance incoporated new AI amendments into the Fashion Workers Act as a necessary first step toward establishing baseline protections for models and content creators around transparency and consent for the use of generative AI.

Background on the Fashion Workers Act:

Modeling agencies are considered to be management companies under New York State General Business Law §171(8), known as the "incidental booking exception," allowing them to escape licensing and regulation. In almost every case, management companies are granted blanket "power of attorney" as part of their agreement to represent models, giving management companies power to accept payments on behalf of the model, deposit checks and deduct expenses, as well as book jobs, negotiate the model's rate of pay, and give third parties permission to use the model's image, while having no obligation to act in their talents' best interests.

This leaves models unprotected outside the terms of their individual contracts – which tend to be exploitative and one-sided in favor of the management company – and creates a lack of transparency and accountability when it comes to basic issues like health and safety and having insight into one's own finances. For example, models often don't know whether and how much they'll be paid for jobs booked through management companies, which deduct various unexplained fees from their earnings, in addition to a 20 percent commission from the model and a 20 percent service fee from the client. Models are held to multi-year, auto-renewing contracts without any guarantee of actually being booked paid work, which ensnares them in cycles of debt and makes models highly vulnerable to other forms of abuse, including human trafficking. When models experience abuse, they do not have a safe channel to file work-related grievances without a risk of retaliation.

The Fashion Workers Act would address these issues by closing the legal loophole by which management companies escape accountability and create basic protections for the models and content creators who are the faces of New York's fashion industry.

The Fashion Workers Act would require management companies to:

  • Establish a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their talent
  • Provide models with copies of contracts and agreements
  • Notify formerly represented models if they collect royalties on their behalf
  • Register and deposit a surety bond of $50,000 with the NYS Department of State
  • Protect the health and safety of models, including by establishing a zero-tolerance policy for abuse

And discontinue bad practices such as:

  • Presenting power of attorney as a necessary condition for entering into a contract with the management company
  • Collecting signing fees or deposits from models
  • Charging models interest on payment of their earnings
  • Charging more than the daily fair market rate for accommodation
  • Deducting any other fee or expense than the agreed upon commission
  • Renewing the contract without the model's affirmative consent
  • Imposing a commission fee greater than twenty percent of the model's compensation
  • Taking retaliatory action against a model for filing a complaint
  • Engaging in discrimination or harassment of any kind against a model on the basis of race, ethnicity, and other legally permissible categories under Section 296(a) of the Executive Law.

About the Model Alliance

Founded in 2012, the Model Alliance has been at the forefront of advancing labor rights in the fashion industry for the last decade. Through strategic research, policy initiatives, and campaigns, the Model Alliance aims to promote fair treatment, equal opportunity, and more sustainable practices in the fashion industry, from the runway to the factory floor. The Model Alliance has championed multiple pieces of legislation, including the Child Model Act in New York and the Talent Protections Act in California. The organization also runs the world's only industry-specific support line, MA Support. In 2021, the organization received the first Positive Social Influence Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the CFDA Awards.