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Activists Renew Push for Fashion Workers’ Rights Bill

The advocates behind New York state’s Fashion Workers Act called on politicians and other industry stakeholders to support the legislation, which stalled in last year’s session.
Fashion Workers Act
Fashion Workers Act (Waylon Bone)
  • Yola Mzizi

Political lobbyists, TikTok influencers and Amazon union leader Chris Smalls gathered Tuesday morning in an unlikely alliance championing New York State’s Fashion Workers Act, legislation that would grant employment protections for models and other industry creatives.

The Fashion Workers Act would mandate management agencies provide talent copies of contracts with plain language that explicitly states the rate of pay and scope of work. Management agencies will also be required to pay models and other contractors within 45 days of completing a job. The bill will protect all creatives working behind-the-scenes on a project basis, including stylists, makeup artists and influencers.

The bill was introduced in the state legislature last year but did not come to a vote, despite support from activists, labor organisers and some industry groups, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America. State Sen. Brad Hoylman, whose district includes Manhattan’s Garment District, co-sponsored the bill in the new session. Supporters are pushing for a vote before the end of the current legislative session in June.

“Fashion is work built on the backs of young people who are essentially indentured, working in debt to their management agencies,” said Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit organisation that seeks to protect models and other fashion creatives and has led the charge on the legislation. The rally Tuesday comes days after Ziff filed a lawsuit accusing Fabrizio Lombardo, former head of Miramax in Italy and once-close associate of Harvey Weinstein, of rape.

At the heart of the Fashion Workers Act is the complicated multilevel hiring structure in the fashion industry that can put models and other creatives at a disadvantage when negotiating compensation and other contract terms with management companies. When a brand puts on a photo shoot, for instance, the models involved will be hired through their respective talent agencies. These agencies are responsible for booking jobs, negotiating pay, as well as accepting payments on behalf of their clients, leaving them vulnerable to abuse or exploitation, the bill states.

Supporters of the Fashion Workers Act say it will not only grant creatives more control over their work but also protections against harassment and abuse that often go hand-in-hand with the financial challenges they face.

TikTok creator Riri Bichri said at the event Tuesday that when she signed on with her talent agency, she was promised a 25 percent commission rate. Instead, the agency took more than 80 percent in some instances.

Model Rozi Levine shared an account of sexual abuse at the hands of a designer who they had hopes of working with in order to alleviate the financial insecurity that comes with freelance fashion shows.

“I was sexually abused because of the financial abuse that I was already facing,” Levine said. “I was receiving paychecks months after being told I was going to receive them. I was receiving random hidden fees taken out from my checks and my bank account directly.”

Critics of the bill say model and talent agencies are being unfairly singled out, and that brands are also to blame for the unstable working conditions of contract work.

“Agencies are intermediaries,” said Claudia Wagner, co-founder of Ubooker, a talent booking app. “If brands are the end consumer and they solicit a service from someone, they should be ultimately responsible for paying that person.”

The Fashion Workers Act is one of several pieces of legislation targeting the fashion industry that have been introduced in state and national legislatures in the last year. Few have made it into law, though there have been some successes, including a law protecting garment workers in California that went into effect in 2022. The New York Fashion Act, for instance, would require fashion retailers above a certain size to disclose their environmental impact. On the national level, the FABRIC Act, which introduces workplace protections for garment workers, is awaiting committee assignment in the US Senate.

The cause appears to have momentum; American support for labour rights and unions has risen in surveys, and the #MeToo movement raised awareness of the abuse models and others in the fashion industry routinely face.

“Our duty as the working class is to stand in solidarity with workers no matter what industry they are in,” said Smalls, who last year successfully organised the first union of Amazon warehouse workers. “This struggle is all of our struggle.”

The Fashion Workers Act is currently under consideration by the Labor Committee, Hoylman said. He added that his team is in contact with management agencies to weigh in on the viability of certain terms in the bill.

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