Child actors and models are staples of runway shows and other entertainment. Raf Simon’s Autumn/Winter 2015-16 Dior Couture collection shown in July featured a then unknown 14-year old, Sofia Mechetner; personally selected by Simon to walk the runway. In fact, Mechetner closed the show – a coveted slot among runway models. Other designers and couturiers routinely feature children and teens in print campaigns and shows.

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Sofia Mechetner, 14 | Dior Autmn/Winter 2015-16 | Image: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho

In spite of the prevalence of children in the entertainment industry, there’s currently no federal law that governs the amount of hours they work, how they’re paid, or how they may be treated. That could change with a vote on the Child Performers Protection Act of 2015, a bill introduced to the House by New York Congresswoman Grace Meng as a proposed amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The bill expressly aims “[t]o limit the number of hours that children may be employed as actors, performers and models, to require blocked trust accounts for the financial protection of such children, [and] to clarify the liability of employers, contractors, and other individuals for sexual harassment of such child performers ….”  As proposed, the bill would:

  1. Limit a child performer’s workday based on age. Notably, these limitations would not apply to children working in live theatrical productions;
  2. Prevent employment or contracting of a child performer unless a trust account meeting the law’s minimum standards were established on the child performer’s behalf. Among other requirements, the trust would be in place until the child turned 18 and parents or legal guardians would have restricted access to the trust;
  3. Require cash wages compensation for the child performer’s work; and
  4. Proscribe sex discrimination and harassment through a private federal right of action on the child performer’s behalf.

According to the Model Alliance, an organization that advocates for model safety and rights, child performers are often emotional and financial victims of employers or parents. Child actors regularly accuse their parents of squandering funds the child earned. And, it is well-known in the fashion industry that models are frequently “paid” in trade with clothes or other products instead of money.

There are some states, such as New York and California, with laws aimed at protecting child performers. But laws can differ among the states and are rarely uniform. While fashion industry trade groups have attempted to address wrongful practices through published guidelines for their members, they have no ability to enforce those guidelines or ensure they are followed. A federal law with the same aims as those guidelines and state laws would bring continuity while co-existing with both. After all, the federal law seeks to establish a minimum set of rights. The states and contracting parties or employers can always choose to provide or agree to greater protections.

Ms. Meng’s bill is currently before the House Committee on Education and the Work Force. It has not yet been slated for a vote. But introduction of the bill highlights these important issues and is a solid step toward protecting vulnerable persons working in the entertainment industry who are not in a position, by virtue of their youth, to advocate for themselves.