Indian American beauty salon chain faces class action suit


New York : A class action suit has been filed against a high profile Indian American beauty salon chain in California for allegedly exploiting workers.

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Ziba Beauty salons, who have done eyebrow threading and henna tattooing for the likes of Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Salma Hayek and Naomi Campbell, stands accused of paying less than minimum wages to its workers, forcing them to work long hours without breaks and no overtime.

The suit has been brought about by former Ziba workers against the owners of the 11 store chain, based in Artesia, Los Angeles, including chief executive Sumita Batra, 39, and partners.

The plaintiffs include Payal Modi of India and Bishnu Shahani from Nepal, who allege they were paid as little as $4 an hour at the salon, denied rest breaks and made to do hours of free henna tattooing services at parties.

The women, who claim they were fired in January for challenging the salon’s labour contracts, have since opened their own salon.

“A lot of people don’t read or speak English. They don’t know California law. So we have to fight for them,” Payal Modi, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 2001, was quoted as saying by Los Angeles Times.

Virginia Keeny, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said she expected to represent 150 to 200 workers in the class action lawsuit, but is yet to arrive at a compensation figure to be demanded for her clients.

Batra’s attorney, Navneet Chugh, has denied the allegations, arguing that all of the salon’s workers receive medical benefits, lunch and rest breaks and legal wages. In 2007, three-fourths of the 60 beauty workers on the payroll earned between $18,000 and $55,000 a year plus tips, he claimed.

South Asian media has projected Ziba as a community success story, founded by hard-working immigrant pioneers who helped introduce ancient Indian beauty arts to Americans and prospered from it.

Ziba was founded by Kundan Sabarwal and her family, Indians born in Iran. Sabarwal ran a beauty salon in her garage in India before moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago. Starting with one shop in 1987, the family’s beauty empire now includes 11 salons, cosmetic products, a glossy magazine, a music business and a string of public events, including an annual “Ziba Girl” pageant.

Sumita Batra, Sabarwal’s daughter, helped bring celebrity glitz to the business by first styling Madonna for a 1998 Rolling Stone cover story. Since then they have styled models for magazines like Vanity Fair and for TV shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” and “Extreme Makeover”.

Complaints of labour exploitation, however, are widespread among Indian and other South Asian immigrant-owned businesses, according to Hamid Khan, executive director of the South Asian Network, a community-based civil rights advocacy group.

He said many low-level workers typically earn $1,500 a month working 60-hour weeks, pay that amounts to less than the $8-an-hour California minimum wage.

Khan’s network plans to launch a project to investigate the working conditions of South Asian labourers in the Little India community in Artesia. So far, the network has negotiated back pay settlements with about eight South Asian businesses, including grocers, mini-marts and restaurants.