For two decades, Ziba Beauty salons have brought the ancient Indian techniques of eyebrow threading and henna tattoos to a clientele that has included Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Salma Hayek and Naomi Campbell.
Ziba Chief Executive Sumita Batra, 39, and her staff have styled models for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone magazines and TV shows "America's Next Top Model" and "Extreme Makeover."
But now Batra and her family partners are accused of building their business by exploiting workers, many of them female immigrants. Former Ziba workers filed a class action lawsuit last week alleging the owners of the 11-store salon chain failed to give them the minimum wage, overtime compensation and meal and rest breaks.
The plaintiffs include Payal Modi of India and Bishnu Shahani from Nepal, who say they were paid as little as $4 an hour at the salon, denied rest breaks and required to deliver hours of free henna tattooing services at parties.
The women, who say they were fired in January for challenging the salon's labor contracts, have since opened their own salon in Culver City.
"A lot of people don't read or speak English. They don't know California law," said Modi, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 2001. "So we have to fight for them."
Batra declined an interview request. But her attorney, Navneet Chugh, denied the allegations. All of the salon's beauty workers receive medical benefits, lunch and rest breaks and legal wages, he said. In 2007, three-fourths of the 60 beauty workers on the payroll earned between $18,000 and $55,000 a year plus tips, he said.
"There is absolutely no merit in the lawsuit against Ziba," Chugh said.
Virginia Keeny, the plaintiffs' attorney with Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson & Renick LLP in Pasadena, said she expected to represent 150 to 200 workers in the class action lawsuit but could not say how much compensation her clients would request.
Indians Americans might be considered the most successful Asian minority in the United States, reporting high levels of income, education, professional job status and English-language ability -- even though three-fourths are foreign-born -- according to 2004 U.S. Census data. But complaints of labor exploitation are widespread among Indian and other South Asian immigrants, 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 laborers 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, and is circulating a community petition demanding that businesses follow California labor law.
Khan said he was unaware of the scope of labor complaints against Ziba until this year. Instead, he said, Ziba was projected in the local South Asian media as a fabulous community success story, founded by hard-working immigrant pioneers who helped introduce ancient Indian beauty arts to Americans and richly prospered from it.
Threading, which originated in India hundreds of years ago and spread to Persia and other parts of the Middle East, uses twisted cotton thread to remove unwanted facial hair. It is considered cleaner and gentler than plucking and tweezing. Henna tattooing, also known as Mehndi, consists of designs ranging from single flowers to elaborate full-body bridal motifs using all-natural dyes that wear off after a few weeks.
Both arts have been practiced in pockets of Los Angeles for decades.
But Ziba founder Kundan Sabarwal and her family, Indians born in Iran, helped market it into the U.S. mainstream.
At the Ziba store on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, more than 10 women of various ethnicities waited for beauty services on Saturday morning.
One client was Charese Kendricks, 40, of Long Beach. The law-enforcement officer said she heard of the threading technique from African American friends in the 1970s and began trying it about three years ago. "It's better and cleaner than waxing, better for your health and lasts longer," she said.
Ziba attorney Chugh said 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 now has an expanding beauty empire that includes 11 salons, cosmetic products, a glossy magazine, a music business and a string of public events, including an annual "Ziba Girl" pageant.
Batra, Sabarwal's daughter, helped bring celebrity glitz to the business by first styling Madonna for a 1998 Rolling Stone cover story.
The Ziba website features a flattering quote about Batra from Madonna and photos of the Ziba chief with Hilary Duff and other celebrities.