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labor Justice on the Job for Nail Salon Workers

New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Narbada Chhetri, former nail salon worker and director of Organizing and Advocacy at Adhikaar (a social justice organization based in New York City with approximately eight hundred members serving the Nepalese and Tibetan community), and Pabitra Dash, nail salon worker and organizer at Adhikaar, about the poor working conditions of nail salon workers in the United States. Highlights of the interview follow.

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Narbada Chhetri: My name is Narbada Chhetri, I came to the United States in 2006 from Nepal, where I was a human rights activist, and when I was new to this country, I took a job as a nail salon worker. I also did domestic work.

Pabitra Dash: My name is Pabitra Dash, and my background is also as a human rights activist in Nepal, where I worked with brick industry workers, to defend their rights and pro- vide education. I came to this country in 2010, and I didn’t know many people. Some of my friends recommended that I take a job at a nail salon.

Narbada: Nail salon work is seasonal. Workers have to earn income in the summer season because the winter season is slow and the hours are sporadic. In the summer, people work seven days a week to make money to survive in the winter. We usually have about twelve clients a day, and that is a lot in one day. In the winter time, we have fewer clients because in the colder months most people only want manicures, and do not ask for pedicures.

Pabitra: In the winter, if there are no clients, you are sent home. They don’t care about your travel expenses to get to work.

Narbada: There are no full-time work schedules. Management will tell their workers to go home because business is slow, despite the fact that the workers have to pay rent, and other expenses. Your landlord doesn’t care . . . [why] you can’t make rent. We have certain things we cannot control, but this is how nail salon workers survive. They need the income, so they often don’t complain. Wage theft is also a big problem. In recent months, we have had two groups of nail salon workers come to the Adhikaar office, and complain of wage theft. After the owner failed to pay them, they told other workers, and they were consequently fired without pay. We took this case to a labor lawyer who wanted to interview them. The workers didn’t want to pursue the case. We tried to educate and encourage them to speak up, but we could not force them. Due to the current political climate, immigrants are really fearful.

There are some nail salons that pay their workforce decently. Eleven years ago, I was working with the one owner, who regardless of the income she earned at the salon, she paid us [fairly]. But her salon closed. The treatment of workers depends on the owners’ background and how  they  feel  about  their  workforce.

Owners are from different countries with different labor norms and that influences their treatment of the workforce.

Pabitra: Most owners are immigrants so we tend to be careful when we speak up. After all, mostly women own the stores, and they are immigrants, which makes the workers more reluctant to challenge them. We have to balance how to make a better workplace as well as profit for the owner.

Narbada: New York City passed paid sick leave, however nail salon workers don’t receive paid sick days because the nail salons mostly aren’t monitored for compliance. And it’s hard to get days off to make an appointment with your doctor in the summertime when there’s so much work. In the winter, there is more free time, but still not paid.

There are no other health benefits from the nail salon employers. Nothing. The higher pay rate for overtime work is also not granted. Now some salons provide a meal break. When they don’t, workers suffer from gastric problems.

Pabitra: Lack of affordable child care is another big problem we face. Most nail salon workers with children spend a significant portion of their limited income on child care. Within our own community, the elderly, those who live at home, provide care. This is an important issue because some of the workers do not have extended family who can help. Our nail salon workers’ children need quality care, and their mothers work 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. This is an important issue that we are organizing around in order to advocate for more government resources for child care.

Besides the low pay, health and safety are big challenges nail salon workers face. Most of the nail salons are very small, and because of the small space, they don’t have adequate ventilation. The chemicals in the nail polish and the remover in salons that lack proper ventilation cause a number of illnesses. Many of us have had miscarriages, including me. The women are reluctant to talk about this, but at an Adhikaar meeting, I raised the issue so it wouldn’t remain a hidden problem. Out of one hundred workers, only about five are men, so reproductive health is an important issue for us.

Many workers also have eye irritation; our eyes are red all of the time. Nail salon workers who have been in the industry for many years have tears in their eyes continuously, and many have difficulty seeing color. Most workers over the age of forty have a hard time securing a job as a nail salon worker. They have vision problems so they are unable to apply the color well. Then clients complain, and this causes the workers to get fired. Nail salons tend to hire younger women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. They will hire them right away, and don’t care about a lack of skill. They want to hire a young, slender girl. They like for you to be attractive, they don’t like for you to be a little bit overweight. There is no preference given to older workers with more experience.

Other health problems include high incidences of cancer, and the contracting of HIV. Nail salon technicians where I work were not allowed to use gloves. One HIV-positive client came into the salon and, unfortunately, the technician had a cut on her hand, and when she used the manicure tools, she cut the client’s hand, and contracted HIV.

Other more general symptoms include a runny nose, and Couperosis (a minor skin condition). Nearly everyone has that disease from working as a nail technician. That’s a common condition. Reproductive health problems are common as well. That’s hidden, no one feels they can talk about it. It’s very clear that expo- sure to chemicals and ergonomic problems cause a lot of health problems. Most nail salon workers also work straight through their shift with no break, which makes these health problems worse.

Pabitra: Beyond the health and safety dangers, we often confront customers who are abu- sive. They bring a lot of their personal problems into the salon. New York City life is very, very stressful for everyone from important politicians to regular working people, and they bring all that stress into the nail salon. For example, we ask our clients how they’d like their nails done and they answer us very abruptly, “Cut them here!” We have to be cordial to our clients, and make pleasantries such as, “Hello, how are you?” They sometimes respond, “I’m good. Why you are asking?” I ask because that’s my job. I have to ask. Most of our clients treat us like we are not human beings. Sometimes I tell them, “I don’t feel like a human being.” Sometimes I can tell that they’re fighting with their husband, or with their boss, or they are not happy with their job, and they come in and take it out on us. They ask to see twenty colors within thirty-five minutes, but how can I show them twenty colors when I have to finish in thirty-five minutes? At times, I tell my boss, I’m not a counselor, I’m a normal manicurist. Even though we try to excel at our job, and we try to give the best manicure pedicure, many clients are not satisfied, and they frequently address us with foul language. They’ll use very harsh language, and I tried one time to speak up for myself, “Why do you use that language with me? I’m a human being.”

Narbada: Each individual customer is different. Many customers care about our working conditions, and inquire about our wages.

These terrible [working] conditions led me to want to speak up, but I was unsure where to start. Then I found Adhikaar, a social justice organization that was just starting to serve the Nepalese and Tibetan community. Adhikaar was leading the way in organizing for nail technician’s issues, so I came to one meeting because I just wanted to listen, and I really liked it. There were about two hundred nail technicians at the meeting.

When I joined Adhikaar in 2007, Domestic Workers United was advocating for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. I learned from them and many sisters about domestic workers organizing. We frequently traveled to Albany and were active participants and organizers supporting this bill. Many of our members work part time, as both nail salon and domestic workers. We currently have eight hundred nail salon worker members at Adhikaar.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights was passed in July 2010, and it became law in November that year. The passing of the Domestic Workers’ Bill in Albany helped our workers see that if we speak up we also can change our workplace. Several workers asked about organizing nail salon workers, and I con- templated how we might organize as we needed more people. In January 2011, we began organizing, and started with more than fifteen nail salon worker-organizers. To begin, we got two hundred workers to complete surveys so we would better understand the needs of the work- force, and we also partnered with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Many nail salon workers are illiterate, even in their own languages, and it’s very hard to communicate with customers. We created a class entitled “English for Empowerment,” and held the class on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to accommodate the more limited schedules of nail salon workers. Unlike domestic workers that tend to have Saturday and Sunday off, nail salon technicians work on the weekends. We call the class English as Empowerment rather than English as a Second Language because we are educating our members about the system as well resources available to them.

The year 2015 was both a good and challenging time for Adhikaar. The positive aspect was that Governor Cuomo announced that nail workers should receive back pay. However, this coincided with the earthquake that took place in Nepal, which was very hard on our members. When Governor Cuomo made the first announcement, the response was not good. All of the workers feared retaliation by Nepali nail salon owners, and many workers were fired. A couple of Nepali business owners objected to me directly: “Why are you doing this at this time? Because we need money to send back to Nepal.” I cried about this all night.

Our former education director was in Albany, and I said, “Please talk to Governor Cuomo’s office. This is not good for our membership”. The requirement to pay back pay was leading the owners to fire workers instead. Due to the earthquake, the owners and the workers needed that income to send back home. Everyone was being fired from their jobs. So it was a very, very hard time for the whole Nepalese community, both workers and owners. A positive outcome was that we came together, had a good discussion with our members, and successfully advo-cated to Governor Cuomo to allow all workers regardless of their status to be eligible to gain temporary licenses. We were very grateful to the Governor and all the supporters, legal advisors, and other allies that helped make this possible.

Pabitra: As a result of this new licensing, we now provide a 26-hour licensing course at Adhikaar. Formerly, in order to earn a license you had to complete a 250-hour course, but we provide this service during 26 hours.

Narbada: In 2015, Governor Cuomo also signed the Nail Salon Bill of Rights, and if you earn tips, you must not be paid less than $6.60 per hour. The new bill of rights has been printed in ten different languages for display in nail salons across the city. In addition to detailing minimum wage requirements, the bill legally requires salon owners to take measures to protect their workers’ health, like providing face masks and gloves. However, the owners are smart and find ways to avoid paying the mini- mum wage and sometimes don’t provide masks and gloves. Workers are scared that if they speak up, they will be fired. They continue to work because something is better than nothing. [Even so,] the conditions are better now than before.

Pabitra: Many owners have two businesses, for example a grocery store as well as a nail salon. Once the bill was passed, the owners were determined to close [the nail salons], not only because of the improvements for the workers, but because the owners do not abide by the tax codes, and other government regulations.

They blame us: why do you raise these issues? Unfortunately, many salons do not follow government regulations or pay their taxes as well not paying the workers a decent wage so that [it’s easier to] close [than follow the regulations]. Adhikaar tries to give workers an advantage in the market. For the workers, we try to coach them on how to conduct a successful interview. Narbada mentioned the English for Empowerment class in which we teach how to coordinate with and handle clients. It seems like a very small thing, but we try to work really hard on that part. So now our nail technicians are aware of these issues too, and we improve their ability to negotiate with clients and management for better pay or tips. I used to make $30-$35 a day; we didn’t have surveys to analyze our working conditions, or this kind of training. Now workers make at least $60 a day.

 It doesn’t matter if technicians are fully skilled, or they don’t have a skill, they are learning and developing skills. At least their earnings are not less than $60 a day. That’s the practice in the market right now. I no longer hear a worker say, “Oh, he only paid me $30 or $35,” and that is the outcome of our organizing work as well as the government’s efforts.

Narbada: Currently, we have a nail salon coalition in New York, and are building a good relationship with the national coalition, too. Our main goal is how we might advocate to the government for our illiterate members. One alternative is that they might take the licensing exam based on their experience verbally, since 50 per- cent of our members cannot read or write at all, but they are very good at their jobs. Our agenda is to work with other allies and supporters in order to build future campaigns. We will continue to have conversations with Nepalese business owners and other allied groups like Workers United helping the Latino community. There are organizations working with different communities across the nail salon industry, which is mainly Chinese, Korean, Nepalese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and a few are Russian. Our approach is to consider how we can work together with the owners because if we do not talk to each other then we cannot make this [situation] different. Our goal is to create a positive relationship with the owners so that we can change the working conditions in this industry.

Since there is no monitoring of the industry, our next step is to get the government to develop a mechanism for monitoring nail salons. We are discussing if an agency should grant nail salons a “grade.” For example, if they give a restaurant the “A” grade, this indicates a standard which is good for business as well. Frequently nail salons advertise that their workforce uses masks, but the salon does not actually allow the workers to use them. This needs to be monitored, and the  government  should  apply  the mechanism of monitoring and grading nail salons. These continued improvements will be the outcome of worker organizing; when workers like Pabitra speak up, they create a lot of possibilities.