100 Years After Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Child Labor Laws Still Leave Models Unprotected

We here at Fashionista are continually impressed by the efforts the Model Alliance is making to improve working conditions within the industry, so we're teaming up with them to bring you the latest from their movement. We'll be hearing from them about everything from broadening child labor laws to changing the sample size. Today, on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff writes about the importance of extending child labor laws to protect young models.
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We here at Fashionista are continually impressed by the efforts the Model Alliance is making to improve working conditions within the industry, so we're teaming up with them to bring you the latest from their movement. We'll be hearing from them about everything from broadening child labor laws to changing the sample size. Today, on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff writes about the importance of extending child labor laws to protect young models.
School children commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Photo: Getty

School children commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Photo: Getty

We here at Fashionista are continually impressed by the efforts the Model Alliance is making to improve working conditions within the industry, so we're teaming up with them to bring you the latest from their movement. We'll be hearing from them about everything from broadening child labor laws to changing the sample size. Today, on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff writes about the importance of extending child labor laws to protect young models.

One hundred and two years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, caught fire, killing 146 garment workers. Most of these workers were young women aged 13 to 23 years old.

The fire was a historic event, not only because it was the deadliest industrial accident in the history of New York, but also because it triggered widespread outrage that brought about many of the workplace safety standards and other labor protections, including child labor laws, that American workers take for granted.

Yet, over a century later, you may be surprised to learn that children continue to work in New York’s fashion industry without the most basic legal protections. Today, the Department of Labor protects all child performers working in New York with one notable exception: Print and runway models.

For example, a 14-year-old model, though she is able to legally work without supervision from a parent or guardian, is not protected by otherwise universal standards of workplace sexual harassment, and is not subject to minimum wage laws. She may be actively dissuaded from finishing high school or placed in situations that are sexually compromising. For many young models working today, bowing to these pressures often feels less like a choice than a prerequisite for employment. And without regulations mandating the completion of at least some level of education and the provision of on-set tutors, many young models will forego their education entirely to pursue short-lived careers, only to wind up earning little or no money and incurring substantial start-up costs often amounting to tens of thousands of dollars of debt to their modeling agencies.

Still from Girl Model

Still from Girl Model

Unlike the “invisible” child laborers who worked behind locked doors in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, today’s child laborers are highly visible and work as the faces of wealthy, established brands.

How could it be that children working today in New York City still lack such basic legal protections? As it turns out, most child performers do benefit from the protection of the law. In fact, in New York State, child actors, singers, dancers, even circus performers, are all regulated by the Department of Labor, and as a result they are subject to a number of obvious but important protections, such as provisions for chaperones, tutors, and trust accounts.

But fashion models—and only fashion models—are excluded from these regulations. They are regulated instead by the Department of Education, and while they do receive modest protections under this arrangement—such as maximum working hours and provisions for meal breaks—these protections are out of date, woefully inadequate, and rarely, if ever, enforced. In fact, violations of the existing laws governing the use of child models are so frequent and widespread that some models have likened New York’s modeling industry to the “Wild West.”

Apart from the cyclical flare-ups about models’ weight and body image, the modeling industry receives little critical scrutiny. People often dismiss modeling as frivolous. “What right do you have to complain,” they argue, “when all you do is get paid to stand around and look pretty.” But whatever kind of work you believe modeling may be, it is still a job, and it should be regulated like any other kind of work. Children working in any industry should be protected, and child models are no exception.

For me, this issue is personal. I started modeling when I was 14--I was scouted while walking home from school just blocks away from the site of the old Triangle Shirtwaist factory--and I experienced some things that 14-year-old girls should never have to live with, especially not in the workplace.

And I was one of the lucky ones.

Last week, the Model Alliance launched a new initiative: a petition to Governor Cuomo and other state officials to ensure that child models receive the same protections under the law as all other child performers in the State of New York.

One-hundred and two years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, today is as a good a day as any to take note of this continuing inequity in the labor laws governing child workers.

Sara Ziff is the Founder and Director of the Model Alliance.