This post is part of a series on labor rights and health and safety issues in the fashion industry.
Twenty-two year old Jamaican model Alexia Palmer is suing Donald Trump’s modeling agency, Trump Models, which she claims treated her “like a slave” since bringing her to New York at age 17.
“I was very excited because all the girls in Jamaica wanted to be signed with an agency [in New York],” said Palmer in a tearful interview with ABC News. “When I went there, they were telling me… I’m going to sign with an agency and my life is going to change.”
Palmer’s life changed, but not in the way she’d hoped. Her H-1B visa application certified that she would have full-time work with Trump Models and receive payment of $75,000 per year. However, she only netted $4,985 over three years under contract with Trump’s agency (which included cash advances and a $3,880.75 check).
Trump Models, which recruits girls from around the world as young as 14-years-old, booked Palmer for modeling gigs for prestigious clients, from Iman Cosmetics to Saks Fifth Avenue. And, yet, 80% of her earnings went to taxes, commissions, “administrative fees,” and other expenses such as test shoots, walking lessons and a promotional video.
Trump Models has brought the Republican presidential contender between $1 million to $5 million in annual earnings, according to his public financial disclosure reports.
“If someone isn’t being paid what they are supposed to be paid, they are being exploited,” Neil Ruiz told CNN. Ruiz is the executive director of the Center for Law, Economics and Finance at George Washington University and a national expert on H-1B visas. “This case shows that [Trump’s] own company has benefited from exploiting his own H-1B visa holders.”
Michael Wildes, the attorney who handled the visa application for Palmer and other Trump models, said the pledge of a $75,000 annual wage on Palmer’s H-1B application was “aspirational.” Nonetheless, he admits that Trump Models considered Palmer an employee when it submitted her paperwork.
“Our position is the application was proper when filed,” Wildes said. “They anticipated an employer-employee relationship. Circumstances changed, and now they’re going to duke it out.”
On the other hand, Trump’s attorney, Alan Garten, said the agency served as Palmer’s manager, not her employer. “There was no employer-employee relationship.” Instead, he said the arrangement with Palmer was typical for model managers who hunt for fresh faces and then hope to attract interest from clients. “It’s a good-faith estimate of what a model who is marginally successful may make.”
However, Palmer’s attorney, Naresh Gehi, who seeks to certify a class action on behalf of models represented by Trump Models, called the arrangement “a blatant violation of getting people from a foreign land to this country and exploiting them.” According to ABC, Trump’s agency has brought over 100 foreign models using the H-1B program.
How Trump Models Is Acting As An Unlicensed Employment Agency
One of the most widespread problems in the modeling industry is lack of financial transparency and resulting wage theft by modeling agencies.
Under New York General Business Law, employment agencies are subject to licensing requirements, they must comply with 10% caps on commissions and fees, and they can’t charge for incidental services such as the cost of advertising. Employment agencies are required to keep detailed records and provide written contracts laying out the terms of employment and conditions of work, including the anticipated compensation. Additionally, they are not allowed to send a model to a client where they know, or should know, that the engagement will violate minimum wage or child labor laws.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, modeling agencies began calling themselves “management companies,” rather than employment agencies, claiming that their primary role is to manage models’ careers, not to book jobs for models. Modeling agencies claim that they fall under the “incidental booking exception” to employment agency regulations, “which applies when finding employment for models is only incidental to [the agencies’] agreements with the models.”
This self-created exemption makes no sense, as the statute defines “theatrical agencies,” which are a type of employment agency, as any individual, company, corporation, or manager who finds employment or engagements for artists. Modeling agencies in New York, including Trump Models, continue to operate as if they are not subject to this state law.
In reality, the primary purpose and activities of modeling agencies is to obtain employment for their models. Models like Palmer sign exclusive contracts to their agencies, which exert substantial control over the models’ working lives. A working relationship with a modeling agency is imperative for a professional model to book jobs. Under the terms of her visa, Palmer could not work for another modeling agency if she wanted to stay in the U.S.
If Trump’s candidacy for President does nothing else to benefit society, perhaps it will shine a much-needed spotlight on the exploitative practices of the modeling industry, which has long escaped regulation and relies heavily on young, female, and mostly migrant labor. Legislation that explicitly brings modeling agencies under existing employment agency laws and regulations could help ensure that modeling agencies, like Trump’s, are appropriately regulated. Explicitly defining modeling agencies as theatrical agencies would ensure that modeling agencies are no longer able to flout this law.