Nepalese Nail Salon Workers Want Fair Working Conditions — and Lunch Breaks


For the workers of New York City’s 2,000 nail salons, the recent New York Times exposé on salon workers’ lack of labor rights — and the subsequent calls for regulation at the state and city levels — have been game-changers. For Luna Ranjit and Adhikaar, the Nepalese social justice organization she directs, it’s been a long time coming.

Ranjit, who testified at the City Council’s first hearing on salon regulation earlier this month, helped found Adhikaar in 2005. On May 20, the organization released a report based on interviews with more than 200 Nepalese salon workers — 97 percent of whom were women — titled “Beyond the Polish.” It found that a whopping 97 percent of respondents were paid a flat rate of $30–$70 a day, and that not a single worker had been given paid sick leave.

According to Adhikaar, Nepalese immigrant women are the fastest-growing segment of salon workers in New York City. The group began conducting interviews with salon workers in 2011, spreading the word through Adhikaar’s membership community. Survey takers would conduct the interviews outside of the salons, often in people’s homes.

For Ranjit, 37, it’s rewarding to see an issue she’s been working on for so many years finally receive wider attention. “It’s definitely broadened the exposure beyond what we could have done on our own,” Ranjit says of the Times articles. “A lot of the things [Governor Cuomo] has proposed — we had been writing those recommendations way before the governor put them out.”

Ranjit says the two biggest areas of concern for her community’s salon workers are language access and proper lunch breaks. Many workers have been unable to get their licenses simply because the test isn’t available in their language, and they take short breaks only when and if the salon isn’t busy. Both those issues appear on the list of Cuomo’s recommendations, put forth shortly after the Times article was published in early May. At that time, Cuomo also implemented a Nail Salon Industry Enforcement Task Force, which recently began a public education and outreach campaign of its own. On Wednesday, members of Cuomo’s administration held an information session for salon workers and owners in midtown Manhattan. There, attendees received a Workers’ Bill of Rights, which is available in Korean, Chinese, Spanish, English, Vietnamese, Nepali, Haitian Creole, Polish, Russian, and Italian.

“We thought we had to work on multiple campaigns,” Ranjit says, “but it all got addressed in the governor’s plan.”

Although the state governs labor and wage laws, the city has also launched a campaign to educate as many salon workers as possible as to their right to paid sick leave, minimum wage, and a healthy and safe work environment. On Thursday, city officials, armed with some 500 volunteers, visited over 1,000 salons throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens in an effort to reach as many workers as possible, handing out flyers in multiple languages.

“It’s definitely exciting to see the issue get so much visibility,” Ranjit says, noting that New York City has the lowest prices for manicures and pedicures in the country. “Our goal is to make the industry safer and better for everyone. People would pay a little more to know that it’s done right. A couple dollars for each person would add up.”

Lara Zarum reports for the Voice on gun violence, city life, television, movies, comedy, and hipster mattress companies.