180,000 New Yorkers work in the fashion industry. Many of them are badly exploited, but that could soon begin to change.
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In 2015, after years of modeling in Mumbai, India, Nidhi Sunil was picked up by a New York City agency that promised it would sponsor her work visa and bring her the opportunity to make it big in the fashion world’s mecca.
When Sunil arrived in the city, 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 charged $2,000 a month by the agency for the accommodations. Sunil worked for months doing fashion shoots, but the agency frequently withheld her payments. For some shoots, she would only get paid in clothing or “exposure,” a common practice in the business.
The agency assessed numerous hidden charges and fees, so Sunil fell into a cycle of debt where much of her earnings had to go to paying it back. She could do little to improve her situation, as the agency possessed power of attorney over her, oversaw her finances and controlled her work visa — another common practice in the industry. If she wanted to leave her contract, she would have had to buy her way out, no small feat when her earnings were being withheld for weeks at a time.
Eventually, Sunil waited out her contract, found a better agency with more transparent practices and became a L’Oreal “global ambassador” and model.
“The Harvey Weinstein case, Jeffrey Epstein case, the Bill Cosby case and others, all of those high-profile Me Too cases had a 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-little-rich-girl’ kind of syndrome… but if you look closer, it’s just a bunch of really, really young girls,” she said. “Most models that I know come from small towns. A lot of them are here trying to work and send back money and things like that. A lot of them feel like they just have to put up with whatever is given to them and make it work somehow, as opposed to asking for basic labor rights and basic human rights.”
Stories like Sunil’s are common in New York’s multibillion-dollar fashion industry, which is rife with exploitation and unfair practices. It is a huge part of the city’s economy: The city government estimates that 180,000 people work in fashion, making up 6% of the city’s workforce and generating $10.9 billion in total wages. The semiannual New York City Fashion Week brings more than 230,000 visitors and generates close to $600 million. Seeing their value overlooked, models, photographers, hair stylists and other fashion workers are organizing to demand more regulation of their working conditions.
On May Day, International Workers’ Day, an expanse of white tents and staged lighting and film equipment blocked the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in preparation for the swarms of celebrities that would appear at the next day’s Met Gala and demonstrate the opulence of high fashion. This year’s theme, unironically, was the Gilded Age, the late-19th-century era of unprecedented wealth disparities and worker exploitation.
Nearby, two dozen models, other fashion workers, elected officials and activists held a press conference, using the Gilded Age theme to point out the glaring discrepancies in the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry: As the owners of the upscale brands worn at the Gala, like Versace or Oscar de la Renta, get richer, the workers making up the bulk of the industry continue to struggle.
“From the runway to the factory floor, to the Amazon warehouses, to Conde Nast workers unionizing, we really believe that we are stronger together,” said Sara Ziff, the executive director of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works towards correcting problematic practices in the industry. “We’re all asking for basic dignity and respect on the job. That’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around when they see the glamor of the Met Gala, but the reality of working in this industry is it’s a luxury business where it’s not a luxury to work in the business, given the lack of basic protections.”
After having fought against sexual harassment, unfair child modeling practices, eating disorders among models and precarious employment for the past 10 years, the Model Alliance is now pushing for stronger state regulations. Its efforts echo the campaign to win deliverista food-delivery workers better pay and conditions through public pressure and legislation. Fashion is far more glamorous, but workers in both industries get paid for piecework, which makes traditional unionization difficult.
The proposed Fashion Workers Act, sponsored by state Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (D-Bronx), would require management companies to pay workers within 45 days of completing a job, improve transparency in contracts and agreements and prohibit charging workers more than the daily fair-market rate for accommodation. Looking to prevent exploitative debt cycles like Sunil experienced, it would also stop management agencies from deducting predatory charges from workers’ pay.
“The issues [in the fashion industry] need to be regulated for human-rights purposes, but also because we’re trying to level the playing field for women across all industries,” said Assemblymember Reyes. “We talk about pay equity and fairness and breaking glass ceilings for women, but this industry that’s predominantly dominated by women, and they’re being exploited, should also be regulated as well.”
The bill also aims to improve conditions for other workers, such as hair stylists, makeup artists and photographers.
“There’s no rules and there’s nothing in terms of protection,” said photographer Tony Kim, who has worked in fashion for over 20 years and whose photos have been published in magazines like French Elle and Japanese Vogue. “Sometimes I wouldn’t get paid for six months, and it’s not unusual.”
The proposed Fashion Workers Act would require management companies to pay workers within 45 days of completing a job.
In addition to late payments, Kim said that he has experienced management agencies setting up shoots, charging the client more than he knew and pocketing the extra money, something he said is very widespread in the industry. Agencies have also resold his photos to clients without alerting him or paying him his due share.
“They’re supposed to be my agent and have a fiduciary duty to me, and there’s no language protecting artists,” said Kim. “It’s just a free-for-all that’s happening right now.”
The lack of any meaningful regulation of the fashion industry also creates an environment prone to abuse and human trafficking, says Ziff, a recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award.
“The Harvey Weinstein case, Jeffrey Epstein case, the Bill Cosby case and others, all of those high-profile Me Too cases had a common denominator, which was unregulated model-management companies that were feeding the people they’re supposed to be representing and protecting to these predatory men,” said Ziff. Sunil said her experience in the industry “almost borders on human trafficking.”
At the May Day press conference, Senator Hoylman said that while the Fashion Workers Act was gaining traction in Albany and he hoped it would be enacted before the legislative session ends next month, fashion still has a long way to go toward becoming a fair industry.
“All of these are basic worker protections, the bare minimum,” he said. “Ultimately, I think we need to see full-on unionization and collective bargaining, but the Fashion Workers Act is the first step and the pathway to true workers’ rights.”
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