Massive Labor Violations Exposed in U.S. Nail Salons

nail salonLast week Governor Andrew M. Cuomo ordered emergency measures to address the rampant wage theft and health hazards defining working conditions of employees in New York’s nail salon industry. Unfortunately, these same problems are an epidemic across the U.S.

Effective immediately, Cuomo’s statement said, a task force will carry out salon-by-salon investigations, implementing new rules that must be followed to protect manicurists from the dangerous chemicals found in nail products; moreover, they will develop an education campaign in six different languages to inform those workers of their rights.

Nail salons refusing to comply with those orders to pay workers back wages will be closed. The new rules are a direct outgrowth of a New York Times investigation of nail salons that was published and quickly went viral last week, detailing the rampant exploitation of manicurists, many of whom suffer serious illnesses that scientists have linked to the chemicals used for salon services.

In his statement Cuomo said “New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head on, and today, with the formation of this new Enforcement Task Force, we are aggressively following in that tradition. We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.”

Labor activists, employment attorneys and workplace injury lawyers hope that the measures may be the start of larger nationwide efforts to reform an industry that has served as a major entry point for immigrants seeking work in the U.S., but in which exploiting the people who toil over clients’ hands and feet has simply become the way business is done.

First, it will be mandatory for salons to publicly post signs announcing rights for their workers, including the fact that it is illegal to work without payment of wages, or for the worker to have to pay money for access to a job — both of which are common practices in the nail salon industry. The signs will be in six languages, including those most often spoken in the industry: Korean, Chinese and Spanish.

The rules with require the use of masks and gloves to reduce the risks of skin conditions. However, occupational health researchers note that hospital-masks worn by manicurists only give the impression of safety, doing nothing to prevent inhalation of nail product chemicals like dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde. Exposure to these substances correlates to increased rates of leukemia and fetal defects. Finally, salons will also come under the requirement to be ventilated, reducing chemical fumes.

Within this industry, a great many workers are undocumented and fear exposing themselves to the authorities, so they rarely speak up. The agencies involved in the task force do not inquire about workers’ immigration status as part of their investigations, the governor’s office said. An education campaign will also be introduced through community groups to inform workers they have the right be compensated fully, regardless of their immigration status, and encourage them to report mistreatment.

Articles in this series examine the working conditions and potential health risks endured by nail salon workers.

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Emery Reddy