Days after a New York Times investigation exposed widespread wage theft, health code violations, and other workplace abuses at nail salons throughout the state, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday enacted emergency measures to protect exploited salon workers.
The order, effective immediately, will assemble a task force to conduct salon-by-salon investigations, launch a six-language rights education campaign for workers, and institute new health standards to protect manicurists from toxic chemicals.
Further, salons that are unlicensed or refuse to back-pay workers will be shut down.
"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," Cuomo said in a statement Sunday. "We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights."
Among the agencies represented on the task force is the state Health Department, which will determine best safety practices and change the emergency rules as needed, over time, to reflect those standards.
Because many salon workers are undocumented immigrants, the task force will not inquire as to their status in the country, in order to encourage them to speak up about exploitation they may face. No matter if they are in the country legally, workers have the right to be compensated fully, the governor's office said.
However, as Miriam Yeung, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) said on Monday, the governor has overlooked other factors in the education campaign and the targeting of individual salons.
"We of course really applaud the governor and others who have taken attention to this issue. At the heart of it, these workers are suffering and we need to lift that up," Yeung told Common Dreams. However, she added, "We have deep concerns that advocacy organizations [like NAPAWF]... haven't been fully engaged in the process of developing these emergency measures."
NAPAWF published a report on the lack of worker protections in nail salons in 2011. In that report, entitled Removing the Topcoat: Understanding Federal Oversight of Nail Salons (pdf), the organization recommended stronger regulations of the cosmetics industry in addition to employee outreach and education. "[E]fforts to improve and streamline regulatory authority and oversight within the federal agencies become increasingly important. Focusing on feasible, impactful regulatory recommendations allows us to support the relevant agencies to move closer to providing safe and healthy environments for hair and nail salon workers," the report states.
Particularly worrying for NAPAWF are the salon-by-salon investigations. "In my mind, I had 'raid,'" Yeung said. "The word raid is particular, because in immigrant communities, which are already vulnerable, government visits can be seen as raids. We've seen in the past [with these types of investigations] assurances that immigration would not be called, and then they were called."
Moreover, she said, "Shutting down salons does not need to be the first step. We'd much rather see a collaborative process that allows the lifting of standards" rather than punitive measures. "In the past what we've seen is measures that result in rapid closures [of salons]," leaving workers whose wages are used to feed their families "immediately out of earnings."
"The solution can't just be, 'shut it down,'" Yeung said.
In addition, Cuomo's emergency measures must not ignore the cosmetics industry in favor of targeting individual salons, Yeung said. "There's no oversight of the cosmetics industry. If we started really testing chemicals that go into these products... that would affects workers and consumers. The problem is really clear and the solution is really clear."
The measures are set to become permanent in the coming months.