The High Human Cost of Cheap Mani-Pedis

Your nails just hit the intersection of beauty and worker exploitation.
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Publish date:
May 11, 2015
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labor, class war, nail salons

Driving through some parts of San Francisco and Oakland, the signs are ubiquitous. Salon after salon advertises manicures at seemingly unbelievable prices. $5. $10. A friend suggests that we park for an hour or so and get our nails done — "for fun," she says. I decline, spending the hour drinking tea and reading in a nearby coffeehouse instead. When she emerges, her nails sparkle, a tiny fake gem inset into her thumbnail. I watch her drum her fingers on the shifter, trying not to chip the polish.

Cheap nail salons are a dime a dozen across the United States, but Manhattan lies right at their dark, tangled heart, and Sarah Maslin Nir set out to investigate them after a troubling experience in a salon. A worker told her that she worked 24 hours a day, six days a week — when she took time to sleep, workers would wake her if a new customer came in. Nir approached her editor with the idea and when she started delving into working conditions, she uncovered something that ran much deeper than one worker at one salon.

Her two part series — "The Price of Nice Nails" and "Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers" — makes for extremely chilling reading. It's riveted the country, rapidly becoming one of the paper's most-shared articles online as well as being widely discussed. It's all over social media from Facebook to Twitter, while reader responses are flooding into the paper's editorial offices. It was a coup for investigative journalism, illustrating that investing funds in investigate reporting and photojournalism is well worth it, and it was also a critical part of a larger narrative about immigration, class, and culture in the United States.

Summing up Nir's reporting doesn't do her justice — the articles deserve to be read on their own. The thumbnail version, however, is that workers are radically exploited in Manhattan nail salons; most work for well below the minimum wage, do not receive overtime pay, and in some cases are clear victims of wage theft without realistic means for recovering those funds. Due to their immigration status, many fear reporting their employers, and employers exploit some in slave-like conditions. Salon workers pay chair rental fees, they pay to learn new skills, and they may be expected to surrender large proportions of tips to proprietors.

Moreover, Nir was surprised to find a racist structure in salons, with some workers earning more on the basis of their racial background. Latinas earned the least, for example, followed by Chinese and then Korean women. In interviews and contacts with hundreds of women, Nir uncovered a sordid and ugly world that belies the glittering beauty of a fresh set of tips.

The second part of the series discussed chemical exposure in nail salons and the risks of compounds used to remove and apply various polishes. Many nail workers labor in spaces that aren't ventilated or provided with other OSHA-required safety protections, using hazardous chemicals to treat their clients; nail polish remover, for example, is not something that should be routinely inhaled. Moreover, some polishes contain compounds like formaldehyde. Workers also run the risk of repetitive stress injury due to the nature of their work.

When it comes to the intersection between mani-pedis and social justice, the situation here is a complicated one. One aspect is the class issue: Workers are being exploited and treated unfairly. There's also a significant racial component, present not just in the racist pay structure in salons but also in the fact that women of color are more likely to work in salons — and the gendered component of this kind of oppression skewers women in particular. Furthermore, it's impossible to talk about the salon industry without exploring immigration, because many of the women of color being exploited in salons are undocumented, or are working with ambiguous documentation status.

Nail salon workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation thanks to the complicated combination of factors surrounding their own status and that of the beauty industry — despite the fact that the industry is worth billions of dollars annually, it's dismissed as unimportant because it's a "women's industry." They remain in the shadows because society feels more comfortable that way, and because giving their voices a place can be extremely difficult in a society where no one wants to listen to them.

Nir's reporting is critical, because it highlights issues labor and immigration activists have been addressing for years, and forces them onto the front page of one of the most prominent newspapers in the United States. Labor journalism of this nature has tremendous power to shape working environments and highlight the work of the labor movement — in months of meticulous research, reporting, editing, and work, Nir catapulted the issue of worker exploitation in one corner of the beauty industry to the forefront — and attentive readers can connect the dots to other regions of the industry where people are likely experiencing exploitation.

Organizations like California's Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative underscore the fact that this issue is not new to labor organizers and immigration activists. Nir's reporting, however, made the problem unavoidable and confronted readers with their own complicity.

Solving the problem of labor abuse in this case is also a complicated issue. Some rather naive letter writers suggest that workers should just be tipped better, putting the burden for fixing a structural problem on individuals. Setting aside the fact that many workers don't get to keep all their own tips, tipping doesn't compensate for the larger issues behind the closed doors of salons.

Nir's reporting speaks to the need for two separate things: Comprehensive immigration reform and tougher workplace protections. Salon workers are vulnerable to exploitation because of poor immigration laws in the United States, such as those that make it difficult to be in the country legally and those that lead women to be too afraid and intimidated to speak up about workplace abuse.

That exploitation is possible because workplace protections — especially for feminized jobs like working in nail salons — are very limited in the United States. Salon workers can be subject to the same tipped wage applied to waiters and others in jobs where tips are expected, and if they don't understand how the wage works, they may not understand that their employers are exploiting them. Moreover, many workers are unfamiliar with overtime limits, controls on working hours and breaks, and more — and labor agencies typically only go after employers when these issues are reported.

Getting an ethical manicure isn't impossible, Nir writes. She recommends going to a salon where workers actually clock in and out, with tracked working hours, and she advises customers to talk to their manicurists about their working conditions. Ultimately, she notes that cost and the work environment are closely linked — if you pay $10 for a manicure, someone is paying for it, and it's probably your manicurist.

Conversations about the beauty industry and social justice often revolve about standards placed upon people — especially women — by an industry that projects unrealistic expectations about bodies onto the lives of real people. This is an industry that expects women to be slim and tall, with perfect hair and makeup and bodies that fit into the latest fashions. But it's also an industry where the people behind the scenes — like the people who make those clothes — are paying a high price for beauty too.

Nir's reporting takes a look at the other side of the beauty industry, and it's an important entry into the larger conversation about how we interact with social expectations, beauty, class, gender, race, and labor.

Photo credits: Zhao!, Flickr; Peter Dutton, Flickr; Angie Chung, Flickr