The Real Price of That Bargain Mani-Pedi

Former workers at Babi Nail Salons earned a small victory when a jury decided that their employer was guilty of labor violations. (Photo by Ross Barkan/Queens Tribune)

A cheap manicure and pedicure is considered an entitlement of city life by many New Yorkers. But trouble has been brewing in the city’s nail salon industry, where workers say they’re underpaid, abused and exploited.

In one of two movements for nail salon worker rights covered in the community and ethnic press last week, The Queens Tribune reported that a group of Chinese workers in Flushing who say they were paid $3 or less an hour and subjected to racist comments and physical abuse sued their former employer, Babi Nail Salons.

The six filed a complaint alleging that they were also denied wages and breaks during their shifts. Last week, the newly-formed Flushing Workers Center, in conjunction with the Justice Will Be Served! campaign, announced that the Korean-owned chain salon was found guilty last month of violating a number of labor laws and was ordered by the jury to pay the workers approximately $250,000 in damages.

“As one of the worker representatives, the conditions for nail salon workers were very difficult,” [former employee De Ping] Song said [through a translator]. “People are still working in sweatshop conditions. I encourage all nail salon workers and restaurant workers to stand up with us so we can change these working conditions.”

In the complaint filed in 2009, Song, Yang Xu, Bai Song Li, Chun Sen Zhu, Yan Zhang and Jie Li also alleged that the Korean-owned salons discriminated against the Chinese workers. The workers alleged they were harassed for reading Chinese-language newspapers and were demeaned for their heritage. Insults like “Chinese are stupid” and “Chinese smell” were commonplace. Physical abuse, including pinching, kicking and hitting, also occurred, according to workers. These charges were not upheld in court.

While the jury’s decision marked a small victory for the Chinese workers, those involved with the case said that the chain may manage to avoid paying the workers through legal tactics. Advocates said much more needs to be done to regulate nail salon labor.

“Babi Nail can use different tactics to avoid payment, like selling assets or selling businesses, so on one hand this is a victory because a jury found they are responsible,” said Sarah Ahn, a Flushing Workers Center organizer. “On the other hand, we are still calling on and putting pressure on the employers to settle the matter.”

The judge, Leonard Wexler, still must issue a formal verdict and determine whether the workers are entitled to liquidated damages— monetary compensation for a loss or injury to a person or a person’s rights or property—and an application will be submitted for attorney’s fees and various other costs related to the lawsuit.

In another struggle involving nail salon workers, World Journal reported that a number of Nepali nail salon workers recently joined a nonprofit seeking better working conditions in the city’s 3,500 nail salons.

Lately, many Nepali nail salon workers have united to ask for higher wages, better hours and a safer environment.  Some have joined Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization that currently has plans to conduct a survey in order to expose the horrible working conditions in the industry. According to Luna Ranjit, the organization’s executive director, Adhikaar has already asked that these workers be able to take the licensing exam in their native language, since many do not have the proper license to work at a nail salon in the first place.

In their defense, nail salon owners told the World Journal that they have been effectively responding to complaints.

… Kelly Li, Chair of the Korean Nail Salons Association, said that nail salons have been improving conditions.

“Now, many people are following the rules,” she said. “In my store, everything we do is by the book.”

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