Jun 1, 2022
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Amazon Labor Union president teams up with Model Alliance in show of support for Fashion Workers Act

Jun 1, 2022

Workers rights and labor unions are officially back in fashion. The Model Alliance, founded by former model Sara Ziff introduced the Fashion Workers Act, for which New York State Senator Brad Hoylman was the lead sponsor. Now, former Amazon worker turned founder of the Amazon Labor Union, Chris Smalls, is joining Ziff's pro-labor legislation that would regulate predatory management agencies. Currently, these operate without oversight, leaving models and other creatives physically, emotionally, and financially insecure and with lasting damaging effects.

Chris Smalls speaking at the rally alongside Sara Ziff (front right) - Courtesy/Jaka Vinšek

The bill was introduced in late March and was passed by a Senate Labor Committee on May 10, an almost Herculean feat for a piece of legislature that can take up to nine years in some cases to pass. Hoylman is joined by Senator Robert Jackson; Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou; Kaja Sokola, the Jane Doe who Harvey Weinstein assaulted at 16 years old after being introduced to him by Next Model Management; photographer Tony Kim; celebrity makeup artist Nick Barose; and former models Alex Shanklin and Madisyn Ritland.

Founded in 2012, the Model Alliance has advanced labor rights through strategic research, policy initiatives, and campaigns aimed at promoting fair treatment, equal opportunity, and more sustainable practices throughout the fashion industry. The organization championed multiple pieces of legislation, including the Child Model Act in New York and the Talent Protections Act in California.

​"It's unacceptable that the creative workforce behind the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry still lacks basic protections in the state that gave birth to the American labor movement. New York derives a huge benefit off the backs of young women and girls indentured to predatory management agencies like Next, which introduced models to known abusers like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. And it's not only models who experience these injustices – makeup artists, hair stylists, and others who work behind the scenes also lack basic protections," said Ziff, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, at a press conference held outside of Next Model Management in Soho.

"I'm standing in solidarity with the Model Alliance for the Fashion Workers Act because it's important these management companies in the multi-trillion-dollar fashion industry are held accountable for exploiting models and creatives for years. We're all workers - no matter what industry you're in, whether Amazon or the runway, we deserve our fair share. We're not going to allow this system to keep exploiting us until we get what we deserve - especially for the Black and Brown individuals in fashion who experience even more abuse. Let's all stand as one and shut it down until these management companies do right by workers: they owe us money, respect, dignity, and damn sure owe us our fair share," said Chris Smalls, Amazon Labor Union president, activist, and former Amazon employee, among supporters ​of the bill some carrying signs calling out model agencies as being akin to Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Peter Nygård, Jean-Luc Brunel and Bill Cosby.

FashionNetwork.com spoke to Ziff via email to relay how an unlikely Amazon Labor Union leader joined the fight along with the Model Alliance. Smalls became somewhat of a local, if not a national hero, when he founded the first Amazon workers union on April 20, 2021, which grew out of the labor-activist group he founded called The Congress of Essential Workers. The New Jersey resident was working in a New York Amazon facility at the beginning of the pandemic and helped stage walkouts when it was noticed that the online shipping giant wasn't following strict Covid-19 guidelines, which in turn, endangered the warehouse workers. 

Ziff reached out to Smalls, who didn't take long to respond to her goal of gaining his support.

New York State Senator Brad Hoylman speaks at the rally - Courtesy/Jaka Vinšek

"Chris is a once-in-a-generation leader who has taken on seemingly un-slayable monsters, and his support is powerful – he's organized workers in the world's fourth largest company, testified before Congress, and met with President Biden," Ziff said of Smalls, adding, "Now he's putting his weight behind the Fashion Worker's Act bill because every worker deserves transparency, fairness and basic respect in their workplace."

​While their industries may seem worlds apart, Ziff begs to differ.

"Much like Amazon warehouse employees, the labor of makeup artists, hair stylists, and others who work behind the scenes is unseen, but they're the backbone of the industry. We all deserve basic labor protections," continued Ziff. "From the warehouses to the runways, we are all trying to have a voice in our work. That voice can take different forms, from unionization efforts, like the one Chris Smalls leads with warehouse workers at Amazon, to legislative advocacy to establish legal protections for models, makeup artists, and other creatives working in fashion."

New York is the fashion capital of the U.S.; Fashion Week alone generates close to $600 million in income each year for the state. Many of the workers in it are freelancers with or without agents. New York City passed Local Law 140 of 2016, aka the Freelance Isn't Free Act, on May 15, 2017, to establish and enhance protections for freelance and gig workers, such as the right to a written contract, timely and full payment, and protection from retaliation.

On December 1, 2021, New York City proved how serious they are about this law by filing a lawsuit against L'Officiel USA that alleged the then French-owned media company engaged in a pattern of failing to pay freelancers on time or at all, including writers, editors, photographers, videographers, graphic designers and illustrators. (Earlier this year, the media company was acquired by Hong Kong-based financial services company AMTD International).

​The Fashion Workers Act was launched with the support of the Freelancers Union and targeted those industry professionals that work with agents.

"We've supported the Freelance Isn't Free bill because these are the same fights: every worker deserves basic labor rights that include the financial transparency to know when your next paycheck is coming and that it will arrive in a given period," said Ziff, adding that in the case of fashion workers, many work through management companies.

"We don't contract directly with our clients. That's why the Fashion Workers Act is necessary."

​Based on the speed things have moved thus far is a positive sign for the legislations. After having only been introduced and passing the Senate Labor Committee within two months, the bill could get a vote on the Senate floor before the legislative session ends on June 2. The bill will otherwise be revisited in January 2023 when the legislature reconvenes. Hoylman is set on it happening sooner than later.

"We have one week to pass the Fashion Workers Act and protect fashion's creative workforce from work exploitation. Fashion is one of New York's most important industries: it accounts for 5.5% of the workforce, $11 billion in wages, and nearly $2 billion in tax revenue each year. And yet the creative workforce behind the industry's success are not afforded basic labor protections in New York. The Fashion Workers Act changes that," said Hoylman.

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