10 Things We Learned About Labor Abuses In Nail Salons

If you’re a fan of manicures and pedicures or you’re interested in small immigrant businesses, be sure to check out the New York Times investigation of nail salon labor practices that started today. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that workers are taken advantage of and underpaid in a highly competitive and little-regulated industry.

We really recommend that you head over and read the entire series, but here are ten things that we learned from the first part. It focused on workers at salons in New York and the rest of the Northeast, where salon competition can be fierce in big cities, and the labor pool is plentiful.

  1. Getting started in the business means paying a shop owner to take a new employee on. A beginner will pay $100 or more and work with no pay until the shop owner deems her worthy of getting paid.
  2. Starting to get paid is a relief, but that pay is meager. The majority of salon workers don’t even receive minimum wage: as tipped workers, that’s legal, but some owners pay wages far below what the minimum wage for a tipped worker would normally be.
  3. Workers don’t have much power against their employers: they usually have poor English skills, and many in the industry are undocumented. It’s easy enough to get a job, but very hard to make a decent living or get ahead.
  4. There’s a racial hierarchy among salon workers: Koreans are at the top, since many salon owners are Korean. Next are workers from China, and the bottom rung are all workers who are non-Asian. The Times very prominently offers translations of the article in Korean, Chinese, and Spanish.
  5. Some shops pay a commission rather than a daily or hourly wage. If no customers came in, they wouldn’t get paid. Simple.
  6. Shop owners argue that they must pay such low wages to stay competitive, and that’s especially true in major cities like New York that are filled with nail salons.
  7. Cases of wage theft and other malfeasance by nail salon owners aren’t prosecuted often, and when they are, the shop swiftly changes hands and the owner and their assets disappear.
  8. Some workers report that owners charge them a fee to teach them new skills that they need in their jobs, and that that they’re even charged to drink the salon’s water.
  9. New York’s Department of Labor had its first-ever undercover investigation of labor practices in nail salons last year.
  10. Owners often monitor their workers using hidden cameras, which they can easily watch remotely on their phones or iPads.

As a consumer, what can you do? Note that salons offering cheap prices are taking that money out of someone’s pocket…and it’s probably their lowest-level workers. The Times offers some tips for being an ethical manicure customer: you can talk to your manicurist and hope that she tells you the truth, or look for signs of actual legal compliance, like time cards. Handing everyone who works on you a cash tip isn’t necessarily the best way to help them: some owners take a portion of these, too.

The Price of Nice Nails [New York Times]