Once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, manicures have become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum. There are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.
But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.
Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a second-story salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers.
Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; the minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.
Last year, the New York State Labor Department, in conjunction with several other agencies, conducted its first nail salon sweep ever — about a month after The Times sent officials there an inquiry regarding their enforcement record with the industry. Investigators inspected 29 salons and found 116 wage violations.
Among the more than 100 workers interviewed by The Times, only about a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York State’s minimum hourly wage. All but three workers, however, had wages withheld in other ways that would be considered illegal, such as never getting overtime.
Outright wage theft, company store schemes, physical and verbal abuse, and that's just for starters. The rampant racism and living conditions verging on human trafficking can be much worse. It's a brutal situation, happening in hundreds of salons just in New York City.
Worker protection laws are there, but when those basic laws of human decency can't be enforced because of a lack of government resources, lives get destroyed, period.
And again I can't help thinking that the near complete invisibility of this problem stems in part from the victims being women of color.