SAG-AFTRA and WGA Support Models and Fashion Workers Act

After waging their own historic labor battles with the studios last year, SAG-AFTRA and the WGA are throwing their weight behind the Fashion Workers Act, which addresses the modeling industry’s exploitative working conditions and is making its way through New York state’s legislature.

In a memorandum of support, viewed by Variety, SAG-AFTRA’s wrote that it “strongly believes that all creative workers should be protected under the law.” The union that represents 35,000 actors, recording artists and broadcasters and shares some overlap with the modeling industry added, “Unfortunately, workers in the fashion industry — many of whom are young women — often have little protections and are likewise vulnerable to all forms of abuse, ranging from economic exploitation to trafficking. The Fashion Workers Act would ensure that models in New York are protected from abuse.”

Similarly, the Writers Guild of America East also offered a memorandum of support that implored lawmakers in Albany to enact change. WGAE, which is comprised of 7,500 writers working in film, television, news, podcasts and online media in the state, noted that “New York is home to a $10 billion fashion industry, and it is incumbent on our State to protect models and other fashion workers from exploitation.” The union added, “While the fashion industry may present the facade of glamour, it’s never in vogue to take advantage of workers.”

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The Fashion Workers Act, which is being championed by advocacy group the Model Alliance, would close a legal loophole that allows modeling agencies to skirt labor laws in New York, the epicenter of the multi-billion-dollar industry. Currently, modeling agencies have no fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their clients like a Hollywood talent agency must and are not required to provide their clients with copies of contracts or the often dubious expenses they deduct from earnings. They also have no obligation to protect health and safety of their models, many of whom are minors and travel alone to the United States from countries where English is not spoken. Models also have no protections against their images being scanned and used in campaigns generated by artificial intelligence. Long hours are common, and overtime pay is rare. The working climate is often described as predatory. Several Harvey Weinstein accusers were models.

In 2023, the New York Senate passed the bill, but the Assembly never voted on the Fashion Workers Act before the legislative session ended. The Model Alliance, buoyed by bipartisan support, reintroduced the bill earlier this year.

Ashley Grace, an actor and the wife of Topher Grace, recently joined the Model Alliance after coming forward with her own story. In 2008, when she was 19 years old, a high-profile photographer sexually assaulted her during a test shoot, according to a lawsuit she filed in November. She believes her abuse could have been prevented if the Fashion Workers Act existed.

“Ashley knew the photographer wasn’t lying when he said he could make or break her career — a career that had never been in Ashley’s own hands,” says Grace’s attorney Ann Olivarius of the law firm McAllister Olivarius. “As long as models are legally treated as a disposable class of workers, with no rights and little opportunity to control their own careers, dependent on the whims of their agency and the goodwill of photographers, models will be vulnerable to abuse.”

Alyssa Sutherland, who started as a model before becoming an actor and SAG-AFTRA member, recently made the trek to Albany to meet with lawmakers and share her experience and detail the stark differences between the two worlds.

“I was a model for 15 years before I pivoted to acting, and during that time I lived under constant fear. I never felt safe,” says Sutherland. “My agency dictated my life: cramming nine girls into a tiny two-bedroom apartment, considering anything I borrowed an advance with an additional 5% interest added, and cutting me off from the possibility of earning money because they told me I needed to lose weight.”

Sutherland, who played Queen Aslaug in the hit TV series “Vikings” and picketed during last year’s SAG-AFTRA strike adds: “When I became an actor, I was shocked by the difference in how I was treated. Working as an actor, I feel respected, whether on set or negotiating a contract. And if there is ever an issue, I have a safety net — my talent manager, agent and lawyer are all in my corner and value my emotional and physical safety.”

For Model Alliance founder and executive director Sara Ziff, the model’s struggle is closely entwined with that of the actor’s quest for improved work protections. Many actors began their careers as models, and some of Hollywood’s #MeToo accusations centered on figures like Brett Ratner and Russell Simmons, who allegedly preyed upon models. Ziff, who used New York’s Adult Survivors Act lookback window to file a lawsuit against former Miramax/Disney executive and Weinstein pal Fabrizio Lombardo, models suffer “behind a veil of glamor and prestige.”

“The lack of oversight within the fashion industry puts our mostly young, female workforce of models behind others in regards to basic workplace protections,” she says. “This labor fight, like any other, draws its strength from unity. The Model Alliance is grateful to have SAG-AFTRA and WGAE behind us, and we look forward to building worker power together across industries.”