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Is It Time for Fashion Freelancers to Self-Organise?

What-Else founder Charlotte Agnew explores the potential benefits of a fashion union.

After over a decade working as a freelance creative in the fashion industry, I am still faced with so many unknowns. Freelancers do not have standard payment terms, definitions of full and half days, an understanding of when overtime begins or where to get guidance on safe shot protocols. We don’t know what support exists for late payments, unpaid invoices and mistreatment, artist fees and usages or why rates are different across jobs. The open-ended questions often experienced by freelance creatives is what motivated me to write to the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

While I’ve never been 100% comfortable with how the industry operates, I’ve never really challenged it either. That is until last year when COVID forced me, and so many others, to take a break from work.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of freelance workers, but it has also spawned so many cool creative projects. My peers are creating from their own perspectives, rather than for brands or titles that had determined 'success' for young creatives before. The energy that evolved from COVID was self-belief and confidence in one's own thought. This is what is so exciting about this time — the potential that exists in the questions being asked across all of this newness.

I began by doing research into what support exists for fashion freelancers. I made phone calls to the Australian Fashion Council — a member organisation that represents brands, manufacturers, suppliers and educational institutions, university lecturers, designers, retailers and magazine editors.  

Everyone I spoke to acknowledged that support for emerging talent and clear legal guidelines on things like working conditions and pay are issues that need to be addressed. But each time I hung up the phone, I still couldn’t see a clear way forward. That’s when I started to think about the possibility of forming a support system that advocates for the rights of fashion freelancers, a diverse group of workers that includes stylists, photographers, make-up artists and writers.

Unions were the closest thing I could find to the support structure I was searching for. The more I looked into what unions do, the more I realised that a dedicated fashion union could deliver many of the things I’d been searching for: fair wages and working conditions, legal representation, protection against discrimination in the workplace, a code of ethics for the industry, standardised work contracts and legislative change.

The next step was finding out if fashion freelancers were protected under any existing unions. The answer is yes and no. I made several calls to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) who directed me to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) a number of times, the Australian Photographic Society and, on one bizarre occasion, to Hairstylists Australia.

When I followed up with representatives from the MEAA, I learned that while some workers, such as writers, were eligible to join the union others were not. Stylists, for example, can only become members of the MEAA if they are working on a film or theatre set. I could see an obvious gap for a stand-alone fashion union that would protect all fashion freelancers and tackle industry-specific challenges.

The hardest part of this process was to actually have someone define to me what the Australian fashion freelancer industry is to the ACTU — we are not as well-understood as other creatives and this is a major barrier to getting the right support. The freelance fashion industry needs to be acknowledged as a unique entity before we can establish a representative body.

For every negative experience I’ve had working in fashion, I’ve had hundreds of positive ones. This industry is full of skilled, driven people who are dedicated to their craft. I want our sector to be recognised. I want new talent to have a stronger support system to help them achieve their goals. I want fair payment terms and safe shoot protocols. I want accountability. Ultimately, I want better protections for all workers so that ideas, design and creativity can thrive.

On 16.11.20 I put my demands down on paper and hit send.  

To the senior officers of the Australian Council of Trade Unions,

  1. My name is Charlotte Agnew, I work as a freelance creative in the fashion industry which are the self-employed workers across styling, style assisting, producers, hair and make-up artists, photographers, set designers, retouchers and more. There is currently no union standing that covers the rights for these workers and I believe a fashion-specific unionisation would better address the systemic and specific issues of the sector, from fair and timely payment terms to ethical treatment.
  2. I have made enquiries to the ACTU and the MEAA and where they have communicated the coverage in journalism, crew (show and television, venues and film), sport and actors. However, there is no union that exists specific to freelancers in fashion. The nature of the highly competitive industry makes it difficult for people to share experiences with each other, create a support system and build a common front to hold clients accountable for late payments, wages and commissions. As the pandemic pushes on, some freelancers are recognising the need for unionisation.
  3. I am writing this letter to express the need for union establishment and support to be created for these workers, to have a formalised resource to navigate the often-poor payment terms without insurance and a legalised structure to support those from being taken advantage of in an industry that continues to exist on personal hierarchy. I want the creation of an organisation to provide guidance specifically to freelance fashion workers which can offer support with late payments, guidance on safe shoot protocols and protection for artist fees and usages.
  4. I ask for assistance on where these questions can be asked to move forward with this type of policy and how a support scheme for fashion freelancers can be created and enforced.


Charlotte Agnew

So far, I haven’t had a clear response from the ACTU about how I can take this project forward. I am still at the beginning of my journey, and I can’t do it alone. I need all the people reading this story who are affected by the issues I’m discussing to reach out — send me a DM or an email — so we can start to self-organise. Together, we might be able to create an industry that we can all be proud of.  

Charlotte Agnew

Editor Lucy Jones