Building a Movement for Worker Health, One Nail Salon at a Time: Interview with Julia Liou

By Lindley Mease

Lindley Mease will speak on climate change, natural disasters and community resilience at Bioneers 2018. This article was originally published by Blue Heart.

Julia Liou is a force, both on the streets organizing workers and inside the walls of congress. She is part of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, Blue Heart’s June partner organization. The Collaborative is building a base of nail workers fighting for safe working conditions and worker rights across the state.

Lindley Mease: Thank you for sitting down with Blue Heart and sharing your vision and work with us. To start off, can you tell us about the collaborative and how you got into the work?

Julia Liou: The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was established back in 2005. Asian Health Services, a community health center here in Oakland, started doing outreach in the Vietnamese community. The community health outreach worker noticed that almost everyone to whom she had conducted health education was experiencing some type of health concern. It seemed strange. At the time, this was over a hundred people, and I thought “wow- that’s a lot of people.” Workers complained of a multitude of issues- miscarriages, asthma, respiratory illness to chronic rashes and cancer.

At the time, my cofounder and myself were in the Women’s Foundation of California Policy Fellowship and we were working on a bill to ban two toxic chemicals from personal care products, including in nail products. During that time, I came to the realization that there was a silent epidemic that was occurring- workers were handling products that contained toxic chemicals day in and day out for long hours and were experiencing chronic and cumulative chemical exposures that were impacting their health.

When I saw that lobbyists were being flown in from out of state to oppose the chemical ban bill, which ultimately resulted in the demise of the bill, I realized that policy was not going to be the answer to addressing Nail Salon workers health issues. It was really frustrating and it made me angry that the community’s voice and needs were drowned out by these high paid lobbyists who were passing out free make up kits to legislative staffers in order to influence legislative committee votes. I went back to the drawing board and started gathering local organizations and policy wonks interested in addressing nail salon worker health and safety and toxic chemicals in products together. From there, we started to have a conversation. Out of that group we established the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which brought together organizations with expertise in community organizing, academics interested in research, and groups interested in policy advocacy. We started doing retreats together and formulated our vision and mission, and that’s how we really came to grow and become a statewide collaboration. Our mission is to ensure the health, safety and rights of the salon community.

Lindley: Who is the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative? Paint the picture for us: who is part of it and where do they come from?

Julia: The Collaborative is over 20 different organizations from across the state. We also have a regional nail salon workforce group that meets every two months. Basically we implement a multi-tier approach of base building, policy advocacy and research to address issues concerning Nail salon worker health and safety in the salon community. We ensure that those who are impacted develop leadership skills to be able to voice their concerns and address the issues they face, which requires building tremendous trust in the community.

When we first started there was very little research out there. We established a Research Advisory Committee to spur and advance a research agenda. We now have studies which have helped document the health issues and impacts nail salon workers experience, which has helped propel our policy advocacy. We have been able to pass a multitude of local initiatives and two state bills with one currently pending in the legislature all related to Nail Salon worker health, safety and rights.

The central core of our work is to empower nail salon workforce members- To have the right to a healthy workplace; to ensure workers have the right to raise a healthy family; to not have to sacrifice their health for their livelihood.

Lindley: What have you learned this far and what comes next for your campaigns?

Julia: We embarked on a Healthy Nail Salon initiative -an initiative that has established key partnerships with counties and cities to implement the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program. This program certifies nail salons at the county or state level who successfully meet healthy nail salon criteria as Healthy Nail Salons. Broadly, the criteria requires the use of safer alternative products without chemicals such as nail polish without formaldehyde, removers that don’t have ethyl or butyl acetates, thinners without methyl ethyl ketone, etc, and having an appropriate ventilation unit, wearing nitrile gloves, and going through a very comprehensive training on best workplace practices.

Working with back then-San Francisco Board Supervisor David Chiu, we were able to help pass the first Healthy Nail Salon ordinance in the nation. From there, we worked closely with the San Francisco Department of Environment who was instrumental in developing the Healthy Nail Salon criteria. The model was very successful; in fact, so successful that we were able to replicate Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Programs in different counties throughout the state: San Mateo, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Francisco and the city of Santa Monica. From there, we worked on taking this model to the state level. In 2015, we worked with now Assembly Member David Chiu to successfully pass the Healthy Nail Salon Act. This legislation has now just been implemented and the Department is Toxic Substance Control will now help to expand healthy nail salons recognition programs around the state. While it’s voluntary, it’s an important incremental step.

As a result of our efforts at the state level, Senator Kamala Harris has put forth an environmental justice bill which builds upon California’s Healthh Nail Salon Act. The federal bill is focused on nail salon workers, hair salon workers, and also farm workers. It is called the Environmental Justice Right To Know Act. The nail salon part of the bill replicate California’s Healthy Nail Salon bill, but scales it up for Healthy Nail Salon models to be implemented on the federal level!

The bill also helps to address the loss of funding streams we experienced as well. When the new Administration was elected, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that puts out recommendations to its constituents, specifically called out our Nail Salon Program, and made a recommendation to cut federal funding to support our progeam stating that our work was a waste of taxpayer money. As a result, the very funding we successfully advocated for at the federal level through the occupational health and safety administration was eliminated. But this environmental justice bill would put these funding streams back in. It is in a committee right now, so if folks would be willing to let her office know you are in support of this bill, we would appreciate any support! We have postcards for people to express support for this bill if folks are interested!

Lindley: For folks who are not organizers and don’t have a background in what base building is, I would love for you to help connect the dots. Why is building trust and building power in your base important for policy wins?

Julia: Base Building and leadership development is so important. We want to build the leadership skills with those impacted to be able to actually address the issues that they face. And this takes time as nail salon workers are the majority-low income, immigrant women who are limited english speaking. They have entered into this industry because entry into the profession is facilitated by a relatively short process to obtain a license or open a nail salon, the tests are translated into languages most spoken by the workforce, and you don’t have to speak much english.

It’s important to build trust. A lot of the workers were scared. Owners were scared. Because there is this fear that if knowledge and awareness is out there that there are all these toxic chemicals in their products, then no one will want to patronize and support nail salon services. We have to build enough trust for them to want to speak out about it.

First, we do trainings to build awareness. Unfortunately, the industry still polices itself, which is why our personal care products, including nail products still contain toxic chemicals. So we start with education so women understand the potential impacts the use of products with toxic chemicals can have on their health and best workplace practices to reduce their exposure. They also learn that there are actually safer product alternatives out there. Our trainings have helped spur the understanding of how one can take action to help create a healthier and safer workplace that prioritizes worker health. And when you prioritize worker health you are prioritizing consumer health.

Then we build workforce leadership: building skills so that those workers impacted can practice sharing their story with their colleagues, family members. They learn how to take notes in community meetings. They build skills to testify and speak with their legislative leaders, with the media. They build skills to conduct outreach in their own community. We constantly continue to improve and evolve our leadership model to make sure that solutions are rooted in the community.

Lindley: It would great to hear a story of the kind of change you hope to inspire in your work. Do you have a specific story of someone who through your programs was able to create political change?

Julia: One of our workforce members was the feature of a documentary that came out two years ago. We had recruited her to be part of our regular regional meetings and when she joined our group, she was quite shy. She had had several miscarriages. She also was experiencing acute health concerns. She works everyday, 8 to 10 hours alongside the rest of her workers.

I remember her saying, “ I didn’t know that the products I was working with and the chemicals in these products could be dangerous for my health. I had no idea.” I remember our program coordinator had encouraged people to share their stories with each other and she said, “No no no, women are not supposed to be out there speaking their voice and stirring up conflict, that is not my place.” But as she came to more and more meetings, trainings, I saw a light bulb come on. She began to understand and , see that others were facing the same issues she was experiencing..

When she began going through our leadership training series, she slowly gained more confidence and saw there other people who feel like her were afraid to say anything and she felt she needs to do something about it. She began to understand the need to educate our policy makers about the issues she was facing, that others in the community and industry were facing. At the time, we were planning a congressional hearing in DC with our national partners to highlight the need for greater product manufacturer accountability for safer products. We put the ask out at our regional workforce meeting that we were looking for someone to tell their story who could really urge our legislators to activate important federal change. She actually said “I think I am absolutely the right person that should go. I need to go share my story and represent my community..” It was such a beautiful thing to see that over 3 years she really transformed into a powerful advocate. She did such an amazing job testifying in her own language of Vietnamese. She put everyone into tears from her testimony. She never had been to DC and she was really anxious to travel so far, but she said “this is my community, I have to do this.” It was inspiring for me as well as so many others.

Lindley: What are some of the things you are struggling with in your work?

Julia: Manufacturer accountability related to the safety of nail care products, in fact, all personal care products, is still a significant challenge. We have estavlished an important foundation and infrastructure by which we have begun initiating concrete change, as evidenced by the Healthy Nail Salon model, but the root issue of the presence of toxic chemicals that are endocrine disrupters, carcinogens, etc still remains. The manufacturers and beauty industry are a very powerful entity. What we need now is for consumers to engage and help us create a culture shift that demands safer Nail products and healthy nail salons.

The anti-immigrant sentiment that has arisen is also a challenge. Workers are afraid right now because they don’t want to be targeted, and are fearful of raising their voices. They are often scared that it would bring an un-wanted spotlight on them as an immigrant workforce. Some even fear accessing public benefits and the healthcare services they need.

Lindley: What are the best ways for folks to show up in solidarity with the movement you are building and have built?

Julia: We want to encourage consumers to patronize officially designated Healthy Nail Salons. Please get online to identify where Healthy Nail Salons are locates, and join on our listserve and be part of our movement. We are always looking for people to push for healthy nail salons and if there are nail salons that people go to and they are not designated as healthy to encourage their favorite local salon to think about becoming a Healthy Nail Salon.

Thank you to Jefferson Fellows for help transcribing and editing this interview. For more about Blue Heart and to support organizations like the Collaborative, visit

This article was originally published by Blue Heart.

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