In February 2014, employees working for Supply Beauty, a beauty salon offering hairdressing and manicure services, came out on strike against their employer. The reason: they hadn’t been paid for two months. On visiting the premises, the labour inspectorate came across many other breaches of hygiene and health regulations.
The employees – most of them from China – of Supply Beauty, a beauty salon located at 50, boulevard de Strasbourg, close to one of the main Paris stations, the Gare de l’Est – came out on strike in February 2014, after their employer had not paid them for two months. In this neighbourhood full of hairdressing and manicure salons – a well-known stopping-off place for the Afro community – this was a "first".
Quickly supported by the French CGT union, a number of municipal councillors and residents’ associations, the strike soon spread to the neighbouring salon on the other side of the street, in turn alerting the authorities. While their strike marked the start of an industrial relations victory in the neighbourhood, with the seven former employees of Supply Beauty winning their legal battle, employees in other salons are still working under similar circumstances, with health and safety regulations often stamped on.
In April 2015, the manager of 50, boulevard de Strasbourg was given a 10-month prison sentence by the Paris court. Two years later, on 23 June 2017, the former employees were summoned before the Labour Court, all in expectation of being awarded damages. Opposing them: nobody. Their employer, Ali D., had left the summons unheeded. Somebody else had been appointed to represent the defence, but similarly did not appear at the hearing.
On that day in June 2017, the former employees finally won their case. But the whole procedure took a long time, with the Commercial calling in a receiver. At the end of the day, the AGS will end up paying the sums owed to the employees. At present, none of them have been compensated.
Unhealthy working conditions, exploited staff
Inside the Supply Beauty salon, the workers – undeclared and without official papers – worked in poor conditions. In its report – to which we were given access – the labour inspectorate described the substandard situation. Its findings included the lack of proper ventilation, out-of-service manicure stations, the use of badly-labelled dangerous chemicals and personal protective equipment unsuitable for the work.
One of the nail technicians remembered suffering breathing problems when working in the salon. Another symptom: a loss of the sense of smell. On finding another job, her symptoms got better. "Dependent on the effects, we speak either of acute or chronic toxicity", explained Aurélien Bucher, a health and safety expert and chemist working for AMIEM, an association providing medical services to companies. A 12-hour working day, 6 days a week (and 7 days during public holidays), without any leave: all this plays a role in provoking ailments. Due to their situation, the employees had never seen a doctor to discuss their ailments.
The employees questioned told us that they had had to buy their own products and personal protection equipment. "Obviously they took the cheapest ones", said Elie Joussellin, section secretary of the French Communist Party (PCF) in the 10th arrondissement and very much involved in the movement. "Most of the time, the bosses raise their hands in innocence, saying that they bear no responsibility for the quality of the products purchased by their staff."
The result: Pascale Heurteux from the CGT remembers having discovered "unlabelled white bottles" on one of his visits to Supply Beauty, a practice in full breach of regulations. The European Cosmetics Regulation stipulates that "cosmetic products shall be made available on the market only where the container and packaging of cosmetic products bear the following information in indelible, easily legible and visible lettering: (a) the name or registered name and the address of the responsible person…, (d) particular precautions to be observed in use…,(g) a list of ingredients".
A further cause of concern: the wearing of a (fabric) mask as protection against fumes and dust. A mask provides only partial protection for nail technicians. Indeed, it would seem that "such masks even increase workers’ exposure to chemical products. The toxic substances get deposited on the mask, i.e, in a dose concentrated around the faces of nail technicians", the labour inspector explained to us.
Working practically non-stop with only a short lunch break on the premises, the workers were constantly inhaling toxic substances.
Substances judged to be “of high concern”
Ya-Han Chuang, a PhD sociologist at the Université Paris IV Sorbonne, was with the workers in 2014. "During the strike, one of the nail technicians employed at 50, boulevard de Strasbourg, confided in me that the staff were well aware that the products they were using were dangerous for their health, but they had no choice. Among the products they feared most was the liquid used to make the artificial nails".
According to our investigations, this liquid was very probably the main cause of their ailments. Indeed, to make the resin needed to create artificial nails, the manicurists have to mix an acrylic powder – in most cases consisting of benzoyl peroxide (a catalyst) – with a (monomer) liquid. Depending on the brand,the latter usually contains different kinds of methacrylate. It gives off a strong and easily perceptible smell. For the workers, the use of thismaterial is synonymous with gaining time, as the resin, in contrast to gel, is self-drying. All it needs is air. A further advantage: it costs less than gel. Different to gel, no UV lamp is needed for the resin method. "Employees are paid by task and are supposed to make a profit",confirmed one of the sources.
We managed to gain access to one of the suppliers and to obtain all the products used to make resin nails. The saleswoman brought the material: a primer used to increase the adhesion of the resin to the natural nail; no ingredients were marked on the container, but – according to the INRS – it basically contained methacrylic acid 2, a monomer, acrylic powder or a "resin softener" (acetone).
Régine Ferrère, president of the national federation of beauticians took a close look at the products: "There’s no need to have them analysed by a lab to know that they’re toxic." She then went through the points not compliant with the Cosmetics Regulation: "A number of the products are not labelled. On others, the statutory information is only available in English; the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients) has not been used; certain pictograms are no longer approved… but at least there are pictograms."
Among the ingredients listed on the packaging was acetone. According to its INRS toxicological factsheet, it is a "liquid giving off highly inflammable fumes, able to provoke severe irritation of the eyes, drowsiness, dizziness, dryness or cracking of the skin". Another ingredient present in the (monomer) liquid: methyl methacrylate. Use of this substance can induce the breathing problems and skin or eye irritations.
Nicolas Bertrand, an INRS specialist in the prevention of occupational risks explained that "the INRS is calling for the prohibition of the resin and gel technique due to the substances they contain and their consequences for the health of workers and consumers".
Studies of air samples taken in nail studios – for instance in a report carried out in 2016 by the State of New York health department – show the presence of several types of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as"acetone, toluene, alcohols and several acetates. They were found in nail studios at levels higher than those usually observed in non-industrialinside air".
This information is confirmed by an Anses occupational health report published in October 2017. The experts "identified some 700 substances present in products used by nail studios or found in the air in such studios. 60 of these 700 substances were considered as substances of very high concern (SVHC), i.e. belonging to the highest danger category". INRS specialist Nicolas Bertrand explained that these were "above all allergenic and sensitising substances. CMR substances were detected in minor quantities".
Hairdressers and nail technicians working in the same premises
Elie Joussellin, PCF section secretary in the 10th arrondissement, quoted the following from memory: "In the salon at 57 boulevard de Strasbourg, one employee worked in the basement, without a window and without any ventilation. Even after quitting his job, he had had to consult a doctor for months on end due to bad headaches. On top of them, he was plagued by psychological problems." Working without natural light or fresh air, he had spent every day at work in a cloud of toxic fumes.
The young man had been hired as a hairdresser. Hairdressers and nail technicians often share the same premises. Premises are used in a way optimising the available space, with too many employees in relation to the floorspace. "This sharing can have repercussions on air quality, with the risk of heightened levels of pollutants", Nicolas Bertrand emphasised.
Luckily for those working there, nail studios are not above the law. Labour inspectorates keep their eyes on them. Employers are accountable and are legally responsible for their employees.
According to the Labour Code, "the employer shall take all measures necessary to ensure the safety of employees and protect their physical and mental health". This ranges from the installation of an efficient ventilation system to the provision of personal protection equipment, as well as making available to employees a consolidated document assessing the occupational risks. Pierre Barré, the founder of Hygiène Plus, a consultancy specialised in beauty occupations, and a member of Afrique Avenir, an association working for the health of African populations, emphasised the importance of "informing and training beauticians and explaining to them that it is possible to do business and at the same time to comply with health and safety regulations.
"The salons at 50 and 57 boulevard de Strasbourg are not isolated cases. There must be around 1,500 workers in the sector working under such conditions. At present there are about a hundred salons belonging to an organised network. For a long time, a laissez-faire attitude was cultivated by politicians as a way of buying a form of social peace", admitted Elie Joussellin. "There can be no question of closing down these salons. Our main wish is that the workers there are protected and that the beauty business is properly regulated. The local council of the 10th arrondissement has since established an action plan. One idea is to establish a dialogue between the various stakeholders: salon owners, workers, the local council and/or trade unions. The objectives are to fight illegal work and to inform employees of their rights", he concluded•.