Is your nail salon abusing workers?

Louis: Labor unions are faster, effective approach to problems of low-wage workers

Errol Louis | 5/14/2015, 8 a.m.
A blockbuster investigation in The New York Times has exposed the harrowing, illegal conditions prevalent in nail salons in and ...

— The Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor, which tracks wage violations, found last year that more than 270,000 workers nationwide were owed $240 million.

The phenomenon extends well beyond big cities. The Economic Policy Institute surveyed federal and local agencies that regulate wage conditions and found that "state departments of labor in 44 states recovered $172 million; state attorneys general in 45 states recovered $14 million; and private attorneys recovered $467 million in wage and hour class action lawsuits."

No single city or state can individually expect to make serious headway in ending a problem taking place in nearly half the country; what's needed is a federal commitment to enforcing workplace conditions. The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division has 200 offices nationwide -- a number that only sounds impressive until you consider the millions of workplaces where violations might take place. (Nationwide, for example, there are 17,000 nail salons.)

This is a case where the simplest and best solution is an old one: labor unions. When workers collectively negotiate wages, hours and other conditions -- and keep a permanent watch for violations -- abuses get caught earlier and are resolved through a process that is faster and less costly than launching a regulatory crackdown or filing lawsuits.

This happens to be an election season, so every candidate for the presidency should put up their best ideas -- whether it's supporting unions, tougher regulation or some other method -- to make sure our workplaces are run with fairness and according to law.

Sweatshops have no place in 21st-century America.

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.