When asked about models having their own union in a recent Times article, Eileen Ford – founder of the reputable Ford Modelling Agency in New York – responded by saying “I’ve heard that crud so many times… Models don’t need that protection anyway.”

Equity disagrees and that in the UK at least, fashion models can now join a legitimately recognised Trade Union. It’s an important step as although employment rules have improved there are still anomalies. However, many working models still veer away from membership and the fashion industry appears to consider being a union member deeply unfashionable…

There was a time when models were revered; viewed as the personification of physical perfection, a time when outrageous behaviour – and even more outrageous day rates – were not only the norm, but also encouraged. Perhaps the immortal phrase Linda Evangelista once uttered, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day” best sums up the era of the supermodel. Then, something happened that changed the landscape of the advertising world forever: the Internet.

When advertisers discovered this cost effective way of targeting the consumer, it appears the model agencies were slow to react. The virtual high street was viewed as neither as lucrative nor as prestigious as the real thing and it was a mistake that has seen rates tumble. Even the recent news that Giselle Bündchen is set to become the world’s first supermodel billionaire cannot hide the fact that the reality for the majority of models is very, very different. Nevertheless, more and more girls and boys are viewing modelling as a viable career and this inexhaustible supply of new faces has saturated the market.

Thus, a disposable and transitory workforce was fostered and the industry was crying out for a trade union of models. However, in such a notoriously fickle and superficial business, those who did speak out could risk alienation. Those brave individuals who first spoke out were two female models in their early twenties: Victoria Keon-Cohen and Dunja Knezevic. In 2007, they approached the actor’s union Equity to add models to the list of entertainment professionals already under their banner. To much fanfare, Equity agreed and many saw this as the first step towards a more regulated industry.

However, the union is being met with resistance from almost all corners and the number of paying members on their books is disappointingly low. The net result is that half a decade later and, despite minor successes, the business of modelling seems as haphazard as ever. Pay rates are inconsistent, working conditions are questionable and almost anyone with a camera can convince an agency to send them girls as young as 13 years old.

At a glance, this stunted progress appears to be bewildering. After all, in theory, if every model immediately signed up and paid their £9 monthly fee, the trade union would soon have the power to enforce better working conditions, more money and a more standardised industry throughout. In practice, however, this is not the case because modelling unlike acting, plumbing, teaching, nursing or carpentry; is not a trade. Although I wrote a book on how a model could improve their chances of modelling success, the bottom line is that the ‘talent’ is usually the last piece in the advertiser’s puzzle and thus easily replaced

Put simply, if an advertiser chooses to shoot a sixteen year old who has never previously modelled, the outcome of the final image will not be that different than if a more professional model is used. If anything, planet fashion prides itself on opting for youth over experience. So really, any attempt by the union to genuinely wield its power can be easily circumvented and, if for example, strike action was initiated then those who downed heels could be easily replaced.

Of course, one way to avoid this would be if all the established modelling agencies actively advocated union membership for all new recruits. This, however, is unlikely because of the way agencies charge commission. Currently, the system works so when a model books a job, their representing agency deducts 20% as their fee. Fair enough. However, they also add an additional 20% charge the hirer has to pay. It is written on invoices as, “£1,000 +20%” for example and thus, the actual commission the agencies take on any booking they broker is much higher than they openly disclose.

Section 6 of the Employment Agencies Act 1973 states:-

Except in such cases or classes of case as the Secretary of State may prescribe, a person carrying on an employment agency or an employment business shall not demand or directly or indirectly receive from any person any fee for finding him employment or for seeking to find him employment.

As such at face value it would seem the agencies should not charge an additional commission for finding them work.

However, The Employment Agencies Act 1973 is modified by The Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 which states at Regulation 26(1):-

“Subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), the restriction on charging fees to work- seekers contained in Section 6(1)(a) of the Act{ of the 1973 Act}shall not apply in respect of a fee charged by an agency for the service provided by it of finding or seeking to find a work-seeker employment in any of the occupations listed in Schedule 3.”

Schedule 3 applies to a number of skills and crafts namely where the employment agencies may charge fees to work-seekers and it includes actors, singers, film continuity person, stunt arranger, photographic or fashion model.

Regulation 26 of The Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 modified matters so that the agent could only charge a fee to be paid by the work seekers for finding work found by the agency. In addition, an agency can charge a fee to a work seeker for including their details in a publication whereby the publication is designed either to find the work-seeker work in the specified occupations, or to provide hirers with details about the work seekers looking for work in those occupations.

However, by Regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2007 the work-seeker has a 7 day cooling off period to cancel or withdraw from any contract to include their details in a publication without suffering any detriment or penalty. The Agency cannot take the fee until the seven days cooling period has expired.

Matters are developed whereby pursuant to the 2010 Regulations, Regulation 11 which amends Regulation 26 (5) of the 2003 Regulations with a consequence that an agency is prohibited from charging upfront fees to workers seeking employment as a photographic or fashion model so as to include them in a publication for the purposes of finding them work.

However, despite the extra protection brought to models due to the added rights granted by the 2010 regulations there are circumstances where the hirer is flaunting the rules.

Thus, the union is actively seeking a candidate to engage in legal proceedings against their agency to recoup these perceived over charges and set a precedent, but as yet the search has proved fruitless. Unsurprisingly, the various agencies I approached to discuss the matter declined to comment.

Founding chair of the Equity Models Union, Victoria Keon-Cohen, said, “Agencies no longer invest in one person over a prolonged period of time. Instead, they distribute more singular ‘products’ with a temporary shelf life. Thus, they sustain a higher gross turn around. This works for the agencies and their clients, but not for the model.”

Keon-Cohen goes onto highlight the industry’s unwillingness to relinquish its inexhaustible supply of cheap labour. “Young girls chase this ‘Cinderella’ dream and advertisers know this. They are fully aware they can hire a new girl each year and pay her the ‘new girl’ rate.” Meanwhile, in the press, these very same advertisers and brands are quick to offer support and condemn the mistreatment of models.

Above all, the specific definition of what it is to be a model remains elusive, and because of this, perhaps being under the Equity umbrella will ultimately hinder the cause. Certainly outspoken and militant models are deeply unfashionable and as competition for jobs increases, so fewer models will jeopardise their own career for the good of all. Perhaps the real problem is that the public simply will not accept that an industry that paints a portrait of perfection is so deeply flawed.