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%”).