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Why N.Y. Gov. Cuomo vows to protect nail salon 'slaves'

One salon on New York's Upper West Side neighborhood touting a starting wage of $10 a day to nail salon workers, reported The New York Times. Governor Cuomo said  he set up a multi-agency task force to recover unpaid wages and enforce health and safety regulations.

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced emergency measures to protect nail salon workers on Monday, after a New York Times investigative report uncovered slave-like working conditions and pay for workers, most of whom are immigrants.

The governor said he had set up a multi-agency task force to recover unpaid wages and enforce health and safety regulations, saying the state "has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head on."

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New York's Departments of State, Labor, Health, Taxation and Finance and the Workers' Compensation Board will work together to stop wage theft and unsafe working conditions, the governor said. None of the agencies involved would inquire about a worker's immigration status.

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The Times report found rampant exploitation of salon workers with most being paid less than the legally required minimum wage, or not being paid at all, as well as enduring humiliation and physical abuse.

Ads in local Chinese newspapers found one salon on New York's Upper West Side neighborhood touting a starting wage of $10 a day, The Times said. The minimum hourly wage in New York State is $8.75 an hour.

The Times story appeared almost a year after New York's Department of Labor - the agency charged with monitoring wage violations - investigated 29 nail salons that resulted in 116 violations of state labor law. The state had more than 3,600 nail salons in 2012.

Once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, manicures have become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum. There are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.

But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.

Cuomo said the task force would "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."

Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, who wrote the two-part story, told readers on Facebook that when she interviewed owners of the salons: "They were very open because they did not believe themselves to be doing anything wrong. The owners I spoke to feel they are doing something heroic, by hiring people who might not otherwise be able to have a job."

The task force has a set up a toll-free number for workers or others concerned about working conditions to call. The number offers help in English and Spanish, according to the recording.

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(Reporting By Leslie Gevirtz; Editing by Ros Russell)