After reading The New York Times’ investigative pieces on how workers in New York City’s nail salon industry are exploited, Gov. Andrew Cuomo shared in the upset and frustration that so many others felt as well. While many regular folks were left wondering what they could do to combat this terrible treatment and a companion story gave a few tips on how to be a conscious consumer, Cuomo as New York state’s top executive and one of the most powerful men in the country means to really do something to combat this appalling abuse.
Not all stories have happy endings or any resolution, but this is becoming a tale of civic virtue that can possibly tell a powerful story of how compelling journalism can capture people’s attention and spur progressive social change. It is also evidence of the power of social media users to both react to news and force action from our leaders.
On Sunday, Cuomo announced the formation of a multi-agency Enforcement Task Force to address worker abuse and exploitation in the nail salon industry.
“We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights,” Cuomo said. “This Task Force will crack down on these kinds of abuses in the nail salon industry, enforce all of New York’s health and safety regulations, and help ensure that no one — regardless of their citizenship status or what language they speak — is illegally victimized by their employer.”
This missive came while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was busy in Washington, D.C., where he will unveil a progressive agenda for the country meant to push presidential candidate Hillary Clinton further to the left. He has thus far made no comment about the nail salon scandal. His administration also recently rejected a City Council proposal that would regulate the industry and require eatery-style letter grades for salons.
For de Blasio, a man who claims to be a leader on progressive issues, this is a problem. The administration to this point has issued no statement or reaction similar to Cuomo’s. Maybe the mayor needs more time or other things are taking up his attention, but the mayor of the city in which this is occurring needs to get front and center on this as soon as possible.
Among the most disturbing revelations in The New York Times pieces were that many workers are forced to live in vermin-infested tiny apartments they share with several others and they are often not paid any wages until months after they begin working. Bizarrely similar to tenant farmers or those forced into indentured servitude, many employers force their workers to pay hundreds of dollars for training before they are allowed to begin earning any wages.
Even when workers do get paid, most are further exploited by not being given the state minimum wage. Employers legally get around this because workers are considered tipped employees, but many have these stolen for minor mistakes, for which they are forced to compensate the salon.
Sadly, it isn’t completely surprising that these workers, many of whom are immigrants or do not speak English, don’t know their rights are being exploited this way. Similar state investigations have in the past uncovered rampant violations in the carwash, restaurant and construction industries. What is surprising in reading these stories is that employers were so upfront about this really shady side of the industry — and the fact that there there is an ethnic caste system where Asian workers are preferred. Koreans occupy the most prestigious spots, followed by Chinese and then women from Spanish-speaking countries.
Another surprising revelation is that New York City proportionally has many more salons than others, including major metropolises Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The latter two cities have about half as many per capita.
Cuomo should be applauded for the nine-point plan meant to tackle this horrid worker abuse. He pledged that five state departments would assist this mission. Immediate actions will include a multi-jurisdiction approach, new health and safety regulations, an assurance bond requirement for repayment of wages, possible license revocation for egregious offenders, mandatory postings on employees’ rights, immediate closure of unlicensed business, posting public legal notices for salons to appear at any proceedings, education and outreach and community-based partnerships to identify violators and encourage workers who have been exploited to come forward.
These efforts are certainly a step in the right direction to protecting vulnerable workers from abuse. As the New York metropolitan region remains a destination for immigrants from around the globe and the glorious Statue of Liberty remains with her arm extended from the water in the harbor, it must be obvious in the light of these revelations that more must be done to ensure all workers — regardless of their country of origin — are not treated like second-class citizens. And not just for the public image of the city, but for everyone’s protection.
After all, it could be your mother, sister, aunt or niece who is working 10-12 hour days and inhaling toxic fumes. Gov. Cuomo has stepped up and showed real leadership on this issue. Now it’s the mayor’s turn to show us that high and tight progressive fastball he is always bragging about. Unfortunately, he is a road trip this week.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.