For an industry that’s all about covering up flaws, perhaps it’s not surprising that major harm lurks just below the polished surface of New York City’s nail-salon industry. Sarah Maslin Nir’s recent New York Times investigation reveals epidemic wage theft and abuse of workers across the roughly 2,000 under-regulated manicure shops dotting the city, where cheap mani-pedis are provided by Asian and Latina women workers who scrub and pamper fingers and toes amid noxious fumes.
But the real eye-opener of this piece should be the fact that change in the industry is possible, and some community-led solutions are within reach. Following the Times’s extensive report, both state and city authorities are now weighing policies to tighten oversight. Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced plans to expand regulations for safety protections and labor standards. Public Advocate Leticia James has recommended granting the city licensing authority in order to directly oversee local salons, rather than relying on deeply understaffed state regulators. A bill before the City Council would initiate a certification program based on voluntary “best practices” standards.
A new campaign led by community and labor groups in collaboration with Public Advocate James, the New York Healthy Salons Coalition, aims to create a “Healthy Salons Incentive” certification program for businesses that adhere to best practices for workplace health and safety. The idea is to encourage shops to take measures like minimizing exposure to toxins and improving ventilation. The program would mirror the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which started around 2010 in the Vietnamese immigrant community, and has since certified salons across the state and collaborated on nationwide worker training and community education efforts.
On the workers’ side, the Nepali community organization Adhikaar just published a colorful pamphlet—designed in collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy—to educate communities about both public-health and labor-rights issues in the sector. The cartoon graphics, designed for accessibility, present general advice on workplace hygiene, health and safety, guidance on labor laws for workers, and advice for customers (“Be generous—tip at least 20%”).
Pamphlet by Adhikaar, Center for Urban Pedagogy and Welcome Workshop
The distribution of the material itself—in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Nepali—is an organizing project; Adhikaar has incorporated the pamphlet into Know-Your-Rights training for members, many of whom are domestic workers and nail salon workers.
But on a day-to-day level, Adhikaar observes that while chemical threats loom over workers, they often identify sheer physical exhaustion as an immediate health issue. “Many people have health concerns, but they’ve sort of normalized it and they’re [seen as] just sort of the cost of doing business,” says Executive Director Luna Ranjit. “But more and more people are getting aware of it and saying this is not okay.”
Labor and health crises overlap: Workers coerced into exhausting and abusive jobs are clearly not in a position to call out their boss on poor ventilation. And when suffering illness along with poverty—living on tips (reportedly often starting at zero base pay) and crammed into communal housing—workers face crushing pressure to stay in those unhealthy jobs. Many of the Nepali workers are semiliterate or undocumented, and are isolated from the mainstream workforce and mired in the salon industry’s caste-like ethnic labor hierarchy.
A September 2014 Public Advocate’s Office report started to uncover the daily horrors workers face: “A survey consisting of one hundred nail salon employees in New York City concluded that 57 percent developed an allergic reaction, 37 percent experienced pains from eye irritation, and 37 percent developed skin problems.” The environmental hazards range from glaring UV lamps to fetid footbaths to the “toxic trio” of nail polish: dibutyl phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde. Manicurists work long hours without proper protective gear, with studies showing over seven in ten “never or rarely wear face masks” and nearly half “never or rarely wear gloves.” Chemical studies draw links between common products for treating hair and nails with cancer, reproductive problems, and respiratory illness.
But health-incentive programs for these semi-underground shops may not be enough. Beyond relying on employers’ voluntary efforts, health and labor advocates urge stronger mandates for health and labor protections.
Despite the Times’s depiction of workers as victims of the industry, advocacy groups involved with the initiative, including Adhikaar, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health are putting workers’ at the forefront of the safety debate by calling on lawmakers to incorporate labor standards into the certification program—including “excluding nail salon businesses that have had a history of wage and hour violations, or that have unpaid [Occupational Safety and Health] violations.” Another proposal is to amend licensing procedures to help prevent discrimination against undocumented workers.
At a recent City Council hearing, nail-salon worker and Adhikaar activist Siru Malla testified about how her nose gets clogged with dust and chemicals as she and co-workers works without masks or gloves:
It makes it hard to breathe. Many of my friends who work in nail salons have become used to this.… Nail salons need to change these conditions. My friends complain about developing allergies. Nail salons need to change these conditions.… This is a place where people come to feel beautiful. This shouldn’t happen at the expense of workers like us.
Adhikaar’s pamphlet tries to fuse its messages of safety and of worker empowerment by presenting the advice to workers and consumers together. For example, the brochure advises workers to take regular breaks and eat meals, while encouraging consumers to wait for an appointment when appropriate and respect workers’ schedule.
Through the design, Ranjit says, “we wanted them to see that it affects both workers and consumers. The health concerns are the same but for workers it’s so much more amplified.” Consider the consequences for workers and clients, for example, of having biweekly appointments versus never-ending workdays. The pamphlet aims to highlight “how to look at it from two different perspectives.”
In an industry that forces one woman’s chronic pain to subsidize the momentary glamor of another, maybe that brief touch during a modest cosmetic ritual could reveal a shared labor and health consciousness: In the city’s struggle for beauty, everybody’s troubles go hand in hand.