A New Bill Aims to Protect New York Models from Exploitation

The bill treats fashion modeling agencies as employers, not booking managers.

Models walk the runway during New York Fashion Week at Spring Studios on February 16, 2022. Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

A new law shielding models from exploitation by predatory agencies is expected to be introduced in the New York state senate today, March 25. If passed, the Fashion Workers Act would require reliable payment schedules for models, as well as instruct model management agencies to register with the state. Non-registered modeling agencies would no longer be able to operate.

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At present, the “incidental booking exception” under New York law allows modeling agencies to classify themselves as management companies rather than employment agencies. This designation makes it easier for agencies to charge clients for travel and portfolios related to their modeling careers. Because New York management companies are not covered by state employment laws, there’s also no limit to the commissions management companies can make from the models they book jobs for.

The Fashion Workers Act’s proposed changes indicate scrutiny is being applied to a volatile industry that’s long prioritized profit over worker’s rights. “We want to make certain that New York continues to be the heartbeat of fashion for the American apparel industry, but that it does so in a way that protects its employees,” the act’s sponsor, State Senator Brad Hoylman, said in an interview in an interview with Bloomberg News

“When I left my first agency, they simply refused to pay me my earnings until I got a lawyer involved,” Sara Ziff, the founder and director of the Model Alliance, wrote in the Daily Beast. “At every agency I was signed to over my decades-long career, I had to ask repeatedly to be paid, and in one case it took 11 years. The time and energy it took to collect my earnings often felt like a job itself.”

Improvements are needed across the fashion industry

The need for improved standards also applies to fashion retailers and manufacturers. The Fashion Workers Act comes on the heels of the Fashion Sustainability Act, which was introduced to the New York State Senate in January. If passed, the act will require multinational fashion countries doing business in the state to submit to reports on sustainability efforts and to map their supply chains.

In 2013, Andrew Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, signed a bill recognizing models under the age of 18 as child performers. This bill forced design houses and photographers to adhere to laws covering worker’s permits and child work hours, but it also drew attention to the fashion world’s reliance on underage, underpaid models, a phenomenon that hasn’t dissipated much globally in the years following Cuomo’s bill.

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics determined models in New York make an average of $48,130 annually. In 2020, the Bureau found the national average annual wage for models had risen to $54,050, (the estimated average annual wage for New York models was not released).

Hoylman’s bill was introduced on the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which claimed the lives of 146 immigrant garment workers in Greenwich Village and kicked off a movement to reform conditions for New York workers.

A New Bill Aims to Protect New York Models from Exploitation