Modeling Industry Leaders Back Proposed New Bill in California

“The power imbalance between most models, on the one hand, and the agencies and clients, on the other, contributes to a culture that tolerates sexual harassment and financial exploitation.  Some of the abuses that models face are criminal.  However, protections that fall under criminal law alone are not enough. Under current employment law, those responsible for sexual harassment and financial exploitation in the modeling industry are rarely held accountable.  It is unconscionable to allow such abuse of this mostly young, female workforce to persist.  Regardless of how a model is classified, it is imperative to maintain a safe and fair working environment.”

The foregoing is an excerpt from an article by Sara Ziff, the founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, from Harvard Law School’s blog, OnLabor. Ziff, the model-turned-activist responsible for pioneering a movement for fair and safe working conditions for models took on the recently proposed California law that aims to promote model workplace safety and healthy images.

According to Ziff, “California Assembly member Marc Levine introduced AB 2539, a bill that aims to extend labor, health and safety protections to fashion models working in the state.  The bill clarifies that all modeling agencies should be licensed and regulated under the Talent Agency Act, which provides comprehensive and necessary worker protections.  It also clarifies that models, like actors, are employees of the brands they represent, rather than independent contractors, ensuring that models are granted worker protection rights that all employees have in the U.S.” 

The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle in April 2016 when it passed the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee. It must be approved by additional committees and the full legislature before it can go to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who has not said if he would sign it.

At the committee hearing, Ziff wept as she recounted abuses she endured as a teenage model, including pressure to strip for photographers. "I felt like I was being treated more like an escort than a model," said Ziff, 32. By requiring that models be considered employees, she said, the state would protect them from sexual abuse and exploitation, and the risks of developing an eating disorder.

The Association of Talent Agents, on the other hand, has called the bill unworkable. A licensing requirement for modeling agencies is redundant because California talent agencies are already licensed, association President Karen Stuart said. "This does nothing to reduce the problems that you heard about today," Stuart said.

The legislation follows efforts in several countries to fight anorexia and other eating disorders among models, who are relentlessly pressured to lose weight or lose work. "The evidence of eating disorders in the modeling industry is alarming," Levine, a Democrat, who represents the Marin County suburbs of San Francisco, said in a statement. "The goal of the bill is not only to protect the health of the workers themselves, but also to help young people who emulate models," said  Levine.

According to a statement from Ziff, "AB 2539 is not an 'eating disorders' or a 'banning skinny models' bill." She says, "As Assemblymember Marc Levine has explained, AB 2539 requires the adoption of an occupational safety and health standard for models that will be determined through a very public process involving stakeholder meetings and consulting with experts. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them and the goal is to ensure that models are not jeopardizing their health for their careers. To be clear, you can be thin, average or plus size and still be healthy."

Under Levine's bill, AB 2539, which was introduced on February 19, modeling agencies would have to be licensed by the California Labor Commissioner, and could be fined if they hire models who do not have a physician certifying that they are healthy. The bill, if passed, directs the state's Department of Public Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to adopt rules for the health of fashion models that would include periodic health checkups, nutrition consultations and medical testing.

UPDATE (5/27/16): According to a statement from the Model Alliance, "We regret to inform you that the CA Assembly Appropriations Committee held Assembly Bill 2539 in suspense, meaning the bill is dead for the year ... Although CA lawmakers have denied models the right to health and safety protections this year, we will forge ahead to win these rights and protections that both models and the public need and deserve."