Working in fashion: revealing the ugly side of the industry and the fight for higher standards

In 2015, after years of modeling in Mumbai, India, Nidhi Sunil was picked up by an agency in New York who promised to sponsor her work visa and give her the opportunity to gain exposure in the world. Mecca of the fashion world.

When Sunil arrived in town, her new agency sent her to a two-bedroom apartment in Midtown Manhattan that she was to share with seven other young models from around the world. They slept in bunk beds and were billed $2,000 a month by the agency for accommodation. Sunil worked for months on fashion shoots, but the agency frequently withheld his payments. For some shoots, she was only paid in clothes or “exhibition”, a common practice in the business.

The agency assessed many hidden charges and fees, so Sunil fell into a cycle of debt where much of his income had to be repaid. There was little she could do to improve her situation, as the agency had power of attorney over her, overseeing her finances and controlling her work visa – another common practice in the industry. If she wanted to quit her contract, she would have had to buy her out, which was no mean feat when her earnings were being held back for weeks at a stretch.

Eventually, Sunil waited out her contract, found a better agency with more transparent practices, and became a “global ambassador” and role model for L’Oréal.

“The Harvey Weinstein case, the Jeffrey Epstein case, the Bill Cosby case and others, all of these high-profile Me Too cases had one common denominator, which was unregulated model management companies…”

“I know there’s not a lot of sympathy for models because it’s kind of like the ‘poor-granddaughter-rich’ syndrome…but if you look closer, it’s is just a bunch of very, very young girls,” she said. . “Most of the models I know come from small towns. A lot of them try to work and send money and things like that. Many of them feel like they just have to accept whatever is given to them and make it work somehow, instead of asking for basic labor rights and basic human rights.

Stories like Sunil’s are common in New York’s multi-billion dollar fashion industry, which is plagued by exploitation and unfair practices. It’s an important part of the city’s economy: the city government estimates that 180,000 people work in fashion, which represents 6% of the city’s workforce and generates 10.9 billion dollars in total salaries. The biannual New York Fashion Week attracts over 230,000 visitors and generates nearly $600 million. Seeing their value neglected, models, photographers, hairdressers and other fashion workers are organizing to demand more regulation of their working conditions.

On May 1, International Workers’ Day, an expanse of white tents and staged lighting and cinema equipment blocked the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in preparation for the swarms of celebrities who would appear at the Met Gala from tomorrow and demonstrate the opulence of haute couture. This year’s theme, without irony, was the Golden Age, the late 19th century era characterized by unprecedented wealth disparities and the exploitation of workers.

Nearby, two dozen models, other fashion workers, elected officials and activists held a press conference, using the Golden Age theme to highlight glaring discrepancies in the global fashion industry. $2.5 trillion fashion: As the owners of high-end Gala-worn brands like Versace and Oscar de la Renta get richer, the workers who make up the bulk of the industry continue to struggle.

“From the runway to the factory, to Amazon warehouses, to organizing workers at Conde Nast, we truly believe that we are stronger together,” said Sara Ziff, executive director of Model Alliance, an organization non-profit that strives to correct problems. practices in the industry. “We all demand basic dignity and respect at work. It’s hard for some people to comprehend when they see the glamor of the Met Gala, but the reality of working in this industry is that it’s a luxury company where it’s not a luxury to work in the company, given the lack of basic protections.”

After fighting sexual harassment, unfair child modeling practices, model eating disorders and precarious employment for the past 10 years, the Model Alliance is now pushing for stronger state regulation. His efforts echo the campaign to win delivery man food delivery workers have better pay and conditions thanks to public pressure and legislation. Fashion is much more glamorous, but workers in both industries are paid by the piece, which makes traditional unionization difficult.

The fashion worker bill, sponsored by State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), would require management companies to pay workers in within 45 days of the end of a job, improve the transparency of contracts and agreements, and prohibit charging workers more than the fair market daily rate for accommodation. Seeking to prevent abusive debt cycles like the ones Sunil experienced, it would also prevent management agencies from deducting predatory charges from workers’ pay.

“The problems [in the fashion industry] need to be regulated for human rights purposes, but also because we are trying to level the playing field for women in all sectors,” said Assemblywoman Reyes. “We talk about pay equity and fairness and breaking glass ceilings for women, but this industry which is predominantly dominated by women, and they are exploited, should also be regulated.”

The bill also aims to improve the conditions of other workers, such as hairdressers, makeup artists and photographers.

“There are no rules and there is nothing in terms of protection,” said photographer Tony Kim, who has worked in fashion for more than 20 years and whose photos have appeared in magazines like French Elle and Japanese Vogue. “Sometimes I wouldn’t get paid for six months, and that’s not unusual.”

The Fashion Workers Bill would require management companies to pay workers within 45 days of completing a job.

In addition to late payments, Kim said he had experience with management agencies setting up shoots, charging the client more than he knew and pocketing the extra money, which he said. him, is very widespread in the industry. Agencies have also resold his photos to clients without alerting him or paying him his fair share.

“They’re supposed to be my agent and have a fiduciary duty to me, and there’s no language protecting artists,” Kim said. “It’s just a free-for-all going on right now.”

The lack of any meaningful regulation of the fashion industry also creates an environment ripe for abuse and human trafficking, says Ziff, recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award.

“The Harvey Weinstein case, the Jeffrey Epstein case, the Bill Cosby case and others, all of these high-profile Me Too cases had one common denominator, which was unregulated model management companies feeding people who “They’re supposed to represent and protect these predatory men,” Ziff said. Sunil said his background in the industry “almost borders on human trafficking.”

At the May Day press conference, Senator Hoylman said that if the Fashion Workers Act gains traction in Albany, he hopes it will be signed into law before the end of the legislative session next month. , fashion still has a long way to go to become a fair industry.

“All of these protections are basic protections for workers, the bare minimum,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think we need to see full union organizing and collective bargaining, but the Fashion Workers Act is the first step and the path to real workers’ rights.”

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