Models often too afraid to launch a claim

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The Independent Online

The international fashion and beauty industries have been able to mask racist employment practices by claiming their businesses are dictated by subjective values. Black and Asian models working for London agencies are often told that they have failed to win work because the client was after a particular look that they don't possess. In any other industry such treatment would be recognised for what it is – blatant racism.

But, under employment law, models are no different to bankers or lawyers whose bosses have paid millions of pounds compensation for racist employment or recruitment policies.

If a model is repeatedly refused work or paid less than a white colleague she has a prima facie claim for race discrimination. Just because models work in an industry where beauty is supposedly in the eye of the beholder does not mean they are excluded from the protection of the Race Relations Act.

Traditionally black and Asian models have been unwilling to speak out because they believe they will jeopardise their careers. And it is true that an agency can try to defeat a claim by using subjective or contextual justifications for their choice of model. But often the bare statistics relating to modelling assignments will reveal a discriminatory trend.

To win a case all the model must be able to show is that a white competitor engaged in similar kinds of work is getting more work. It is not necessary to prove that the other person intended to discriminate against you.

Ethnic minority models may also be able to bring a claim for indirect racism by showing that the established practices of their industry have a discriminatory bearing on their work patterns and pay. Non-white people make up more than 20 per cent of the population in London yet it is estimated that only 1 per cent of the models in the capital are black or Asian.

An industry so skewed towards non-ethnic minority workers is highly vulnerable to race discrimination claims. It may only take one high-profile case to trigger a torrent of race claims. The employment tribunals will then be able to set new parameters and fairer rules of employment.

The question is who will be brave enough to go first.