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How years of organizing led to victories for nail salon workers

This spring, the New York Times published major investigative pieces on the abuses suffered by nail care workers. Policy victories quickly followed: new legislation to protect nail salon workers and agreements for better enforcement of existing rules.

To the casual observer, it might seem that the Times story was the start of a movement for workers’ rights in New York nail salons. But the attention and victories we’ve seen this spring are actually the results of years of organizing by grassroots organizations that have been funded by North Star Fund from their start.

Adhikaar is one of the organizations leading the way on this issue: a women-led grassroots group committed to workers’ rights, healthcare access, and immigrant rights in the Nepali-speaking communities of New York City—a community from which many nail salon workers come. Adhikaar has been supporting nail salon workers in New York City since 2005 in their fight against unjust working conditions, which can include exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, inhumanely long hours coupled with wage theft, and the inability to apply for advanced practice licenses due to legal and language barriers. North Star Fund has funded this work for the past eight years, after awarding our first grant to Adhikaar in 2007. 

At a spring 2015 forum at the Open Society Foundations, in response to a question about how Adikhaar achieved this victory, Luna Ranjit, co-founder and executive director of Adhikaar, told a roomful of workers’ rights advocates and funders that, “North Star Fund was one of our first and most valued supporters. They funded our survey of nail salon workers when no other funders would.”

The New York Times’ investigative pieces drew attention to the systemic injustices at work in the nail salon industry, one which incorporates an estimated 3,000 salons in New York City and 31,000 licensed nail technicians in New York State.

The stories highlighted the exploitation of workers such as 20-year-old Chinese immigrant Jing Ren who worked in a salon for three months without pay and 52-year-old Eugenia Colon who developed an inflammatory lung disease from her years working with acrylic nails.  

The movement to improve the wages and conditions of nail salon workers gained momentum in the summer of 2014 (see timeline below), when Adhikaar joined forces with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) to launch the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition. This progressed to a partnership between the coalition and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James to conduct and publish a report—“How Safe is Your Salon?”—on working conditions in nail salons.

Forging this partnership was not a simple feat, however. A year earlier, Adhikaar received the prestigious two-year Movement Leadership grant from North Star Fund. The Movement Leadership program—as well as Adhikaar’s participation in The Advocacy Institute, a technical assistance program supported by the North Star Fund—helped Adhikaar hone their skills to engage Albany and City Hall strategically, while engaging Public Advocate James as an effective ally. 

 

Local government responded by sharply increasing the number of nail salon inspectors in New York. More inspections took place in the first four months of 2015 than had occurred in the entirety of 2014, proving how formidable grassroots organizers can be when supported by real investments.

The members of the Coalition spent the past summer advocating for healthy nail salon legislation at the New York City Council. Empowered by its partnership with the Public Advocate, the funds of its donors, and by the New York Times’ exposés, Adhikaar and its allies won a seat on Governor Cuomo’s Nail Salon Industry Enforcement Task Force.

In May, the task force succeeded in releasing the Nail Salon Workers’ Bill of Rights—posters detailing minimum wage requirements and safety measures—that must be visibly posted in every nail salon in New York.

“This is a place where people come to feel beautiful,” Siru Malla, a Nepali immigrant, told Adhikaar while discussing the nail salon in which she works in Manhattan. “This shouldn’t happen at the expense of workers like us.”

Throughout June, Adhikaar continued fighting for the passage of historic legislation to establish a training and licensing program for all nail salon workers. The new laws also enabled the state department to forcibly close any salons who failed to adhere to the state’s regulations. Another North Star Fund grantee, the MinKwon Center, succeeded in changing language in the bill that would have criminalized employers for hiring unlicensed workers. In a hard-won victory, the New York State legislature passed the laws on June 19.

Eight years ago, few people would have thought this victory possible. North Star Fund was one of the only groups who did. These triumphs continue to emphasize the fact that tomorrow’s victories may come from groups unknown to our donors—but chances are North Star Fund is already funding them.

Here are a few of the simple actions consumers can take to help the movement for healthy salons from an informational poster created by Adhikaar and fellow North Star Fund grantee Center of Urban Pedagogy:

  • Be patient and willing to wait for service—as you would at a doctor’s office—to allow an employee to take a meal break.
  • Don’t be offended when a worker wears a mask and gloves—they do so for your safety as well as theirs.
  • Tip at least 20 percent in cash directly to the worker who served you.

We’ll add one more step: a donation to Adikhaar and to North Star Fund to support more organizing victories in other industries and on a wide range of issues.

Image above from the Healthy Salons for All guide.

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