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Nail salon workers fight for rights

NEW YORK (AFP) – They are the artisans of affordable beauty on almost every New York City street corner. But migrant nail salon workers endure low wages, poor conditions and health risks – a reality they hope a new law will change.

“The first thought of coming to the United States (US), it was a dream,” Maya Bhusal Basnet, who arrived from Nepal in 2009, said. “But working in a nail salon, I faced a lot of issues that I would not share with my kids.”

Last month, around a hundred nail salon workers protested in Manhattan, singing and dancing below towering skyscrapers.

They are demanding enforcement of the minimum hourly wage of USD15, overtime payments, better access to protective gloves and masks, meal breaks and social protections.

The campaign, led by a coalition of activist groups supported by Democratic lawmakers, calls for the creation of an organisation of employers and employees who would work together on minimum standards across New York state.

A nail salon worker gives a manicure to a client in Queens. PHOTO: AFP

The state is estimated to have over 5,000 salons and 17,000 employees, the vast majority of migrants from Asia and Latin America.

Authorities took up their plight after the New York Times published an investigation into exploitative practices in the industry.

Since 2016, the New York state government has identified over 1,800 violations of labour laws at nail salons and ordered owners to pay USD2 million in outstanding wages and damages.

The introduction of the USD15 minimum wage in the 2016-17 budget and the abolition of tip credit have improved working conditions for many in the industry, according to New York’s Labour Department.

But for Basnet, there is still a lot more that needs to be done.

She said not all salon owners pay the minimum wage and some that do have reduced hours.

A recent study by Cornell University Workers’ Institute found that “unpredictable schedules” and “wage theft”, when workers are not paid the money they are owed, are still prevalent.

According to official statistics, the hourly wage in the sector was USD14.31 in the New York metropolitan area in 2021, below the legal minimum.

There are also health concerns. Basnet said she often experienced skin irritation, persistent coughs and breathing difficulties from the chemicals, such as acetone or acrylic.