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It's hard for some of us to view models as “workers” in the way labor rights advocates understand the term, but working conditions in the fashion industry indicate a need to organize.

Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

In 1990, supermodel Linda Evangelista famously said that she wouldn't "wake up for less than $10,000 a day." Her words have since been used to mock her mercilessly, and continue to influence public perception about what the lives of models are like: overpaid, overindulged, privileged product pushers. When New York Fashion Week took place earlier this month, with models sashaying in clothes too expensive for most people to buy, it was hard not to see past this perception.

So, it's even harder for some of us to view models as "workers" in the way labor rights advocates understand the term, and complaints from models about, well, anything, may seem insufferable. How can someone whose physical appearance is validated by the culture and the mainstream economy possibly have it rough?

But Evangelista is far from representative of all models. This is a point The Model Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit advocating for improving working standards for models, is trying to make clear. Like many sectors, we tend to see and hear about the most successful, elite few; the proverbial "one percent," as Sara Ziff, a model of 15 years and founder of the Model Alliance points out. (She is also a graduate of Columbia University and a community organizer.)

Ziff educates both labor rights activists and the fashion industry about why working conditions for models need to improve. "Modeling seems like a privileged profession, so the general public attitude is not at all sympathetic [to organizing efforts]," she told RH Reality Check. "Most people have a hard time even understanding that it's work."

Since models are generally independent contractors, they are not covered by major labor laws and their organizing efforts aren't necessarily protected. Ziff says many members of the Model Alliance join anonymously, so that their chances of getting work aren't hindered.

Unlike actors, who can join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) once they have fulfilled a certain amount of acting work, there is no union for models that offers health insurance and basic protections.

Yet working conditions indicate a need to organize. Even though modeling is one of the few sectors in which women out-earn men, the majority of women and girls in New York City trying to work as models are having a tough time making a buck. Between paying their agenciesupwards of 20 percent of all their earnings, covering the costs of their lodging and transportation, and to pay their own rent, many models spend time working off debts they owe to their agencies.

And debt is hard to pay back when you're not getting paid at all: often designers will pay models with clothes or other products instead of with a paycheck, something Marc Jacobs was criticized for last year. (He has since changed this practice.)  In 2011, the average model salary was $33,000 per year. One activist at the Model Alliance points out that earnings can be skewed, with some earning up to $400,000 per year and others steeped in debt to their agency. Like many other workers, it is rare for models to be paid overtime, no matter how late into the night a shoot may last, or to have employer-sponsored health insurance.

Peeling back the layers of many industriesreveals a consistent truth: industry bosses earn high dollars on the backs of cheap, unprotected labor. But fair pay is far from the only workers' rights issue models face. Ziff's group is focused on moving the fashion industry in a number of different directions, including ending sexual harassment and assault, which some contend is widely under-reported by models fearful of losing work, and changing basic standards of beauty, which she feels have too long promoted unrealistic and unhealthy weight for women and girls.

Ziff is also focused on improving protections for minors working as models: "You see 14- or 15-year-old girls coming to New York to model, and these kids are not thinking about their rights," Ziff said. "They might even feel lucky to have a picture in a magazine and not ask if they're getting paid."

So where are the "momagers" who can attend shoots to protect their kids? "Probably working themselves," Ziff points out. "Most parents can't afford to devote their lives to their kids' careers."

The Model Alliance has garnered some supporters from within the industry and secured partnerships with Fordham Law School and the Fashion Law Institute; it now plans to focus harder on payment-in-trade practices and on changing a host of other working conditions. "I don't want to paint the career in a bad light," Ziff says. "Modeling can be wonderful work. But hearing other models stories' has made clear that bad experiences in the business -- lack of financial security, sexual harassment -- are systemic and need to change."

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