A Model Union: New Group Gives Voice to Fashion Workers

By Roosevelt Institute |

Fashion models are often harassed and exploited, but a new organization seeks to remind us that they deserve the same rights and protections as other workers.

I’m proud to announce that one of my former students is launching an exciting new organization of workers: fashion models. Founded by Sara Ziff, the Model Alliance aims to help models in the American fashion industry by promoting better working conditions, giving a voice to fashion’s most visible yet least protected workers, and advocating for safe, fair, and healthy standards in the workplace.

The Model Alliance is the latest organization of workers to emerge from a growing movement of workers often excluded from many employment protections we take for granted. Adding to the efforts of domestic workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and farm workers all seeking a voice at the workplace and to transform their industries for the better, models are organizing to challenge workplace abuses.

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While most of us share glamorized images of the fashion lifestyle, the reality of working conditions for the vast majority of models is far from glamorous. A survey of U.S.-based models conducted by Ziff and former model Jenna Sauers found that roughly one out of three models has been sexually harassed; two out of three lack privacy while changing; eight out of 10 said their agency’s accounting procedures lack transparency, often resulting in “wage theft;” more than two out of three have been told to lose weight; and almost seven out of ten suffer from anxiety and/or depression. In addition, because models are classified as independent contractors, they are exempted from most labor and employment laws (including child labor, overtime, and sex discrimination), and most are without basic health insurance.

Ziff and her colleagues seek to change this and have already done so with their launch. With the support of Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the Model Alliance’s “Backstage Privacy Policy” will be implemented in the upcoming New York Fashion Week. For the first time, models won’t have to deal with invasive backstage photography and harassment. In addition, with the joint support of Actors’ Equity and the American Guild of Musical Artists, the Alliance is starting a confidential sexual harassment reporting service called Model Alliance Support.

Finally, inspired by the successful campaign of domestic workers and in collaboration with industry leaders and agents, the Alliance has drafted a Models’ Bill of Rights, which seeks to articulate a set of broad principles and rights to empower models at the workplace. Imagine: fashion models organizing along with nannies and farm workers to improve working conditions and gain a strong voice at the workplace. This is not your father’s labor movement; it’s a new labor movement for a new century.

Dorian Warren is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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