Blessed with good looks and the trappings of a glamorous lifestyle, models don't usually elicit much sympathy. But concerns about the exploitation of young models has prompted demands for rules to be laid down by the fashion industry.
On Tuesday, the actors' union Equity will table a motion at the TUC annual congress designed to boost union representation among models and improve their working conditions. The guidelines will call for new measures including a ban on the under-16s being represented as adults; a 10-hour limit on working days; and any nudity to be discussed and agreed with models prior to the contract being signed.
It comes amid claims of an unregulated industry, in which models remain largely powerless. Some, it is claimed, are pressured into having sex with clients or photographers, with many working hours over the legal limits and subject to poor working conditions. Negotiating power is largely held with modelling agencies or the Association of Modelling Agents (AMA), while the models themselves act as independent contractors.
"The reality is that many models are treated as disposable labour with little or no working rights," says Victoria Keon-Cohen, of Actors' Equity. "But because of the supermodel stereotype, and as models are so young, they don't know how to exert their rights; and it's not in employers' interests for them to be aware of them."
This is the latest in a series of efforts to improve conditions for models. Five years ago, the Model Health Inquiry chaired by Baroness Kingsmill made numerous recommendations, including that models should have to supply health certificates and that under-16s should be banned from catwalk. But very few of these were adopted. The Model Sanctuary, a refuge founded by Erin O'Connor in 2007 to give young models a place to receive "discrete health guidance and educational support" from nutritionists, psychologists and fitness experts, was closed earlier this year due to a lack of funding.
Yet some believe this latest step is one too far. Laurie Kuhrt, chair of the AMA, last night said: "I think what we will find is that there is nothing on [the charter] that the AMA hasn't already well established over a long period of time. For example, with regard to models under 16, we came to an agreement with the British Fashion Council several years ago that we wouldn't have any models into London Fashion Week if they were under 16."
Dunja Knezevic, co-chair of Equity Models' Committee, added: "We have encountered a lot of models who have been against union representation, who say that the industry is perfect and that we are complaining about nothing – and they are very scared.
"Many of the new models come from Eastern Europe, where conditions are worse than they could possibly experience at a British photo shoot. So they are saying, 'What are you complaining about? Why do we need a break?' But we are saying, 'Even though it is much better here, it's about respect for the profession. We are doing a professional job and should be treated as any other profession."
The union's 10-point proposal for all photo shoots:
1 Maximum 10-hour working day
2 Suitable meals laid on
3 Expenses for journeys of 10 miles or more travel
4 Respect and dignity towards model at all times
5 No long-lasting change of appearance (including hair) unless agreed
6 Nudity or semi-nudity must be approved in advance
7 Private changing area and bathroom facilities
8 Studio temperature must be at least 21 degrees
9 Insurance cover and prompt payment
10 Models aged under 16 must be chaperoned