In 2018, kidswear was worth over $40.5 billion worldwide. This booming industry has created a higher demand for younger models. In China particularly, children can earn up to $1,990 per modelling session, whether it’s a fashion campaign, advertisement, or runway show. The most successful of these kids earn over as $140,000 a year.
But this comes at a price: grueling working hours, parental pressure, and physical abuse. These are just some of the criticisms thrown against the industry’s growing—and controversial—market for child models.
On August 1, China’s netizens were outraged by a photoshoot featuring a child model donning winter wear during a scorching-hot Shanghai day. Onlookers saw the boy taking off his jacket in between shots, with some WeChat users writing, “the child is so miserable” and “it’s silly for parents to exploit their children to earn money.”
This isn’t the first time this year that people have condemned the exploitation of children for the fashion industry.
This April, a clip of a woman kicking her three-year-old daughter during another photoshoot resulted in fury from organizations, designers and netizens alike. The video, taken in Hangzhou, a province in Eastern China, went viral, garnering tens of millions of views online. The mother has since issued an apology and defended herself to several media outlets. Following the outrage, 100 children’s clothing stores on China’s ASOS-like platform, Taobao, signed an open letter against the abuse of child models. Hangzhou authorities also banned children under 10 from being the faces of brands.
But despite these incidents, parents in China seem to be rushing to place their children on the catwalk, according to a new report by Beijing AFP.
Xiao Liang, a father of four-year-old twins, enrolled his daughters in Le Show Stars, one of the first modelling schools in Beijing, for nearly two years. He hopes the girls can later enter the industry full-time. He insists that his children are have fun fulfilling both their classes and the catwalking competitions they participate in. Some of these days surpass regular work hours. “12 hours is pretty standard,” said Liang.
For many of the enrolled children, the pressure to perform is massive. Lee Ku, the founder of the modelling school, told AFP that he frequently sees violent behavior from parents on the sets of photoshoots.
“If children don’t listen to the parents, then I think hitting them is quite standard,” Ku said.
China’s Law on the Protection of Minors, which was passed in 1991, offers strict regulations and prohibits the employment of children under the age of 16. But modelling occupies a strange gray area and regulations for child models appear to be lacking. Migrant communities and rural areas are particularly vulnerable to child labor laws being flouted. To add to the complications surrounding the contentious business, many of these parents are sometimes paid in secret by those hiring their children, in order to avoid child labor laws.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.