On Friday, October 18, 2019, the Model Alliance’s founder and executive director, Sara Ziff, and model and trafficking survivor Airica Kraehmer, met in Paris with Marlene Schiappa, the French Minister of Gender Equality, and fashion luxury brands, including LVMH, Kering, and Chanel, to discuss fashion's human trafficking problem. At the meeting, which took place on European Anti-Trafficking Day, the Model Alliance presented the RESPECT Program as the solution to prevent trafficking and abuse of models and other talent who help to market French fashion’s most powerful brands.

Airica Kraehmer, who began modeling at age 12, shared her story at the event and urged executives to take action. “When I was trafficked, I was taken against my will to a house I had never seen before. I was kidnapped, assaulted and raped repeatedly -- sometimes a dozen times in one day, and beaten any time I tried to fight back. I wanted to die,” said Kraehmer regarding abuses she suffered in 2015. Kraehmer claimed her manager sexually assaulted her, and her New York modeling agency turned out to be a criminal escort ring. “How could my dream of working for brands like Alexander McQueen and Dior -- a dream that seemed within reach when I first moved to New York -- result in scars on my body, broken bones, deep trauma, and so much more?”

Unfortunately, Kraehmer’s story is not unique. The Epstein case brought to light the problem of trafficking in the modeling industry and highlighted how the issue is not only domestic but across borders. Jean-Luc Brunel, French associate of Jeffrey Epstein and talent scout was an accomplice of Epstein’s crimes and allegations against him range from sexual assault to rape against former models. He was the former head of model agencies Karin Models and MC2, before he sold the latter in October, 2019. Now, models are urging companies not only to address these abuses, but also to work towards prevention. With traffickers frequently posing as agents, photographers, or other professionals working in the industry, models are especially vulnerable to trafficking because few standards or norms exist regarding models’ recruitments and work conditions. When exploitation occurs, models are often unaware of their rights and lack adequate support.

“I know I am just one model,” said Kraehmer. “But there are thousands of stories like mine out there, thousands of models being taken advantage of. Some of their stories are told, but most are not.”

The launch of the 2017 Models’ Charter by Kering and LVMH was a first step towards better compliance with human rights. Yet, the self-regulation approach has repeatedly proven itself to be insufficient. Without a neutral third-party monitor, models lack the incentive to come forward. As reported in the Guardian, a key draftsperson of the Models’ Charter, Cyril Brulé has noted that the Charter’s hotline was dropped as it was not used – from what he perceives as a continued fear from models of being blacklisted by brands.   

One reason for silence, noted Ziff, is that most working and aspiring models who fall victim to trafficking or abuse are unaware of their rights, or what to do when exploitation occurs. Many models also fear retaliation when deciding whether or not to report abuse. In such an environment where accountability is rare and blacklisting is all too common, the Model Alliance believes the RESPECT Program has enormous potential to foster a safe and fair work environment.

RESPECT is a legally-binding agreement to protect models and other fashion creatives from sexual harassment and abuse. It is based on the worker social responsibility model (WSR) pioneered in the remarkably effective Fair Food Program, which has been called a model that "must be considered an international benchmark in a fight against modern day slavery" by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking. The Program offers a first-of-its kind, enforceable Code of Conduct for the fashion industry, with mandatory consequences for brands, modeling agencies, photographers, and other service providers who violate the terms of this Code. RESPECT also creates a neutral third-party Standards Council that will be charged with receiving and investigating complaints, issuing corrective action plans to address work-related abuses and, ultimately, to work towards prevention. Finally, the Program includes avenues for models to file complaints and seek guidance, which are improvements on the Model Alliance’s existing Support Line.

“This meeting with Minister Schiappa and French brands was a major step forward in our work to foster an environment of genuine accountability in the fashion industry," says Ziff. “The RESPECT Program provides leading companies an opportunity to do the right thing, manage risk, and generate more and better business.”

The Model Alliance thanks the North Star Fund and the Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights for their generous support.

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