As New Yorkers relish summer’s end, stylish ladies will seek pedicures for sandal-ready feet, but their seasonal indulgence will be shadowed by a statewide crackdown on the nail salon industry’s ugly labor practices.
As we’ve reported before, The New York Times’s investigative series has shed a scandalous light on this ubiquitous but under-regulated sector. Thousands of workers, predominantly Asian and Latina immigrant women, are exposed daily to massive labor abuses and coercive treatment. In the following weeks, Albany passed a law requiring owners to pay a wage bond to safeguard workers against the risk of labor violations. For a salon that employs two to five nail technicians, the boss would purchase a bond worth at least $25,000, and at least $75,000 for a shop with a staff of a dozen manicurists.
According to Capital New York, wage-bond agencies will typically charge the employer only about 1 to 10 percent of the bond’s total value up front.
The idea is to get employers to front some of the cost of low-wage labor. If the worker in the future complains of wage theft and wins her case, but the employer doesn’t pay up, the state can tap the bond as an alternative source of compensation (the sum is later recovered by the bond company). The system has been used before to beef up regulatory enforcement in the carwash and construction industries.
The bond system is part of an array of labor initiatives advanced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, accompanied by a statewide task force focused on improving conditions in low-wage precarious industries, like construction and retail. The Task Force will work with an advisory board with representatives from several unions, community groups, and business representatives.
Though nail salons certainly are not the only exploitative low-wage industry in New York, the labor issues have touched a public nerve, perhaps because the workers perform such a symbolic ritual of commodified femininity, in which exploitation ties into pressure to be docile and seamless. That may mean no personal protective gear, despite the poisonous substances they handle; no lunch breaks, since it’s bad form to keep a customer waiting; no speaking unless asked.