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Nepalese nail salon workers found to suffer low pay, health issues

Survey of 189 New York-based, Nepali-speaking workers follows New York Times exposé on industry

A survey of 189 Nepali-speaking, New York-based nail salon workers found the majority of them earn a flat fee of between $40 and $70 a day and suffer from health problems that began after they started working at a salon, the community organizing group Adhikaar said this week.

In a report released Wednesday, the Queens-based organization said 97 percent of workers earned a daily base rate, which for some was as low as $30. The percentage of workers who received overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week was in the single digits. And more than one-third reported experiencing eye irritation, while about one third reported headaches.

Adhikaar’s survey comes two weeks after the New York Times published a major exposé on labor conditions at New York’s nail salons. Following the publication of the story, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed new legislation intended to step up regulation of the nail salon industry. The measures Cuomo proposed include stricter safety requirements and harsher penalties for salons found to be in violation of pre-existing regulations.

The New York Times article brought renewed public attention to the nail salon industry. But advocacy groups have been working on labor conditions within the field for years. Adhikaar, which works with members of New York’s Nepalese community, began focusing on nail salons in 2010, said Adhikaar Executive Director Luna Ranjit.

She said the New York Times story was “a mixed bag.” While it put greater visibility on salon worker labor conditions, the article also created new hazard for workers, she said.

“There’s a lot of unlicensed workers, and the increased scrutiny has put unlicensed workers at risk,” said Ranjit, referring to the fear that many unaccredited workers could lose their jobs.

For the most part, Adhikaar’s nail salon organizing efforts have focused on worker education, though Ranjit said the group has also participated in “a few test cases where we’ve taken legal action” alleging discrimination or wage theft at specific salons. Although they were able to recover money for workers in some of those cases, Ranjit said salon managers often hide their businesses and money with paperwork, making legal enforcement difficult.

“Sometimes when we hear about these problems it becomes very difficult to correct them or even file a lawsuit, because the employer will transfer their assets or close shop and open with another name,” said Ranjit.

Such tactics were not highlighted in the Times story and have not been a part of Cuomo’s reform proposals. But activists say they are some of the major issues that need to be addressed. A group of organizations known as the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage Increase has thrown its support behind a measure in the New York state assembly known as the Security Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill.

The legislation intends to make the largest shareholders in nail salon companies personally liable when the company is accused of wage theft. The bill also aims to make it harder for employers to move assets around while a wage theft case against them is in progress.

“If we don’t address this, if we don’t stop this, then there’s going to be no way to improve the industry,” Sarah Ahn of the Flushing Worker’s Center, part of the coalition, told Al Jazeera.

Ahn described the governor’s proposals as “a good step,” but she urged him to support the SWEAT bill.

“We really need to be pushing to close these loopholes, to give workers the ground to stand on if they want to come forward and expose sweatshop conditions,” she said. 

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