Queens Politician Fought for Mistreated Salon Workers Until Their Bosses Gave Him Cash  


Last summer, a Queens assemblyman helped prepare a bill to fight the terrible working conditions in New York City’s nail salons, then he suddenly changed his mind. What happened? Money, is one guess. Seems like money happened.

In the wake of the New York Times reporting on the mistreatment of nail salon workers in May, a Flushing, Queens assemblyman named Ron Kim worked with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on a bill to protect salon workers from wage fraud and exposure to poisonous chemicals. Now, just months later, Kim has flip-flopped.

Over the summer, Sarah Maslin Nir wrote a scathing investigative piece about nail technicians in the Big Apple who are often immigrants, know little English, have few resources and fewer advocates to fight for their rights. As a result, nail salon owners are able to keep their staff in a cycle of work with little to no pay, little to no rest in crowded living quarters, and little to no chance of upward mobility or escape. The New York Times article went viral; many women stopped getting their nails done, or went looking for salons with fair and equitable labor practices.

In response, salon owners protested outside of the paper’s office in Times Square. To date, they have funneled nearly $100,000 to Kim through fundraisers and individual donations.

And now, Kim’s on the opposing side of the bill meant to keep salons workers safe. He’s connected the Korean nail salon association to a lobbying firm where he used to work; the firm is now defending a lawsuit that asserts that parts of Cuomo’s salon-centric labor law are illegal. Kim himself is saying that he flip-flopped because he’d thought the law would target all “appearance enhancement” shops, according to the Times, and now feels that nail salons will be unfairly targeted—particularly by a “wage bond” provision that Cuomo’s chief counsel insists was clearly written as specific to nail salons from the start.

[Kim’s] argument mirrors one detailed in a lawsuit filed in September by the Korean American Nail Salon Association and a newly formed group, the Chinese Nail Salon Association of East America.

OK, Mr. Kim.

(In addition, on Friday, The New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on some of the criticisms against the piece, specifically on the translation of a number of nail salon ads in some Asian-language newspapers in the city, concluding that “the two-part investigation went too far in generalizing about an entire industry.” Maslin Nir then sent a series of tweets about the response, one of which read, “I’ve never understood, why the voices of 125 women I interviewed can be erased by the syntax of one little ad.”)

For his part, Kim has returned $5,000 to the Korean nail association and $2,000 to the Chinese nail association, but that still leaves quite a bit in his pocket.

Campaign finance records show that at least $17,000 in contributions that appear to be from the July fund-raiser came from salon owners, including present and past leaders of the Korean nail salon association. The donations that have come in since then are not yet publicly available.

Kim, whose own family owned a nail salon, said his staff is searching to see if they need to return any more money.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via AP.

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