Washington, D.C., a city not exactly known for its sense or understanding of style, is facing a decision that could impact the fashion industry nationwide. On Monday, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced the Child Performer Protection Act of 2015, legislation to create the first federal protections for children who work as actors and models in the film, TV and modeling industries. Child performers and models are not currently protected by any federal law; their protections vary from state to state. In a statement, Meng described the unique risks and dangers child performers encounter on the job: “Sometimes kids are asked to undress in front of others or are put in compromising positions at a young age. Some reality shows have children being filmed while changing clothes or going to the bathroom. Young performers can also have their earnings taken by their parents, leaving them with nothing when they turn 18.”
The bill’s provisions include: A maximum number of hours child models and actors can continuously work, a mandate that workers be compensated in cash wages (more on that later), a requirement that 15 percent of a child’s earnings be placed in a trust until that child turns 18 or demonstrates urgent financial need, a “private right of action” for children who experience sexual harassment and a means for suing their employers should harassment occur at work.
Children in the modeling and entertainment industries can be “exploited, manipulated and mistreated,” Meng said, creating the need for “a federal law that would finally ensure that children in acting and modeling are adequately protected.”
Sara Ziff is a model and founder of the Model Alliance, an organization that’s been championing protections like those included in Meng’s bill since its inception. Ziff was contacted by Meng’s office in December 2013; Meng had read about the Model Alliance’s efforts behind the Child Model Act in New York State and wanted to discuss taking this mission to the federal level. In early 2014, Meng and Ziff discussed implementing protections for child models nationally.
No child should ever have to deal with problems that I and many other models have experienced.
“Most models begin their careers as children,” Ziff told ThinkProgress via email. “Many of them are faced with pressures that include long working hours for no monetary pay and sexual demands. No one should have to deal with these abuses, let alone vulnerable children. These experiences in their formative years may have long-lasting repercussions on their health, well-being and careers.”
Ziff started modeling at 14. “No child should ever have to deal with problems that I and many other models have experienced — problems such as sexual harassment, long working hours without meals, or monetary pay, pressure to pose nude, opaque bookkeeping and wage theft.”
While a layman could be forgiven for assuming most models are supermodels — that they’re all friends who post Instagrams, attend Taylor Swift concerts, and strut in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, arm in slender arm, while raking in millions — most models are actually not, well, super. Many models, Ziff pointed out, “work in debt to their modeling agencies” and get paid in “trade,” a.k.a., clothes and accessories. This is problematic for reasons aside from the obvious (you cannot buy groceries with designer jeans or pay rent with a handbag), because it complicates how models can pay taxes on earnings. (To add insult to non-payment-injury, “Clothes paid in trade are often torn or otherwise damaged samples that are unusable, if they are delivered at all,” said Ziff.)
Sexual harassment and abuse is a huge problem in the industry, Ziff added, but models, as independent contractors, aren’t protected against workplace sexual harassment. “Because of the multi-level structure of hiring (between models, agencies and clients), they generally aren’t protected under New York City law, either,” Ziff said.
Agencies have fought to maintain models’ status as independent contractors, Ziff said; not a huge surprise, since if models were employees, they could unionize and be entitled to a minimum wage, health insurance, workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries, and protection from a host of workplace offenses, like discrimination and harassment. Keeping models in this not-quite-employed level takes a huge burden off agencies and places it squarely on the shoulders of 15-year-old girls.
The labor abuses in the modeling industry are as common as they are difficult for models to report without risking their job.
“The labor abuses in the modeling industry are as common as they are difficult for models to report without risking their job,” she said. “Like fashion itself, the modeling industry moves in short cycles and there’s a huge reservoir of fresh talent, which leaves models feeling easily replaceable. And unlike other performers, such as actors, models in the U.S. lack union protection.” Ziff is satisfied with the bill — she says there are no provisions she hoped to see in it that got left out — as it pushes for “a unified national floor of standards [that] would protect child performers wherever they engage in work across the country,” said Ziff, without which “child models often stand to be exploited by adults who do not have their best interests in mind.”
A bill like this, she emphasized, should be important to citizens, regardless of their individual interest (or lack thereof) in fashion. “Essentially, this is a child protection bill,” she said. “Our society recognizes that children are uniquely vulnerable.”
Asked if instating protections for minors is the best way to address the abuses and problems within the modeling industry — as opposed to, say, not allowing people to start modeling professionally, in certain venues, until they are 18 years old, and holding designers accountable for hiring underage models — Ziff clarified that “there’s a difference between children modeling as children, and children modeling as adults. I don’t see any harm in a child modeling in a Macy’s catalog if they are treated fairly on the job.”
But as for the fact that the fashion industry’s fixation on underage girls dressing up like grown-ups is on the upswing (again), Ziff said, “Too often, we see children (girls) modeling clothing that is marketed to adults (women),” she said. “That’s not good for the child and it’s not good for the consumer. I think that adults should model clothing that is marketed to adults. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have labor protections for children who model.”