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NYC’s nail salon sweatshops

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2015

From Sarah Nir at the NY Times, an investigation into the world of NYC nail salons, where workers need to pay a fee to get a job, are underpaid, subjected to abuse, and are crammed into one-bedroom apartments with several other workers.

Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.

“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.

Prepare to be infuriated over and over as you read this.

The typical cost of a manicure in the city helps explain the abysmal pay. A survey of more than 105 Manhattan salons by The Times found an average price of about $10.50. The countrywide average is almost double that, according to a 2014 survey by Nails Magazine, an industry publication.

With fees so low, someone must inevitably pay the price.

“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers wages’ are being stolen,” said Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.”

In a Q&A about the investigation, Nir shares how she became interested in nail salons:

About four years ago, I was at a 24-hour spa in Koreatown. It’s one of the Vogue top-secret best-bet salons — a really unusual place. It was my birthday, and I treated myself to a pedicure at 10 AM. And I said to the woman, “It’s so crazy that this is a 24-hour salon. Who works the night shift?” And she says, “I work the night shift.” And I said, “Well, it’s daytime. Who works the day shift? What do you mean?”

And she said, “I work six days a week, 24 hours a day, I live in a barracks above the salon, and on the seventh day, I go home to sleep in my bedroom in Flushing, and then I come right back to work.”

And I was like, This woman’s in prison. People had to shake her to keep her awake. And then she would do a treatment. I just thought it was crazy.

I don’t see how you can go to a NYC nail salon after reading this article. Even Nir’s tips about being a socially conscious nail salon customer aren’t much help.

Update: Part 2 of Nir’s series on nail salons is out. It’s about the health hazards faced by nail salon workers, including lung disease, miscarriages, and cancer. One woman even lost her fingerprints.

Similar stories of illness and tragedy abound at nail salons across the country, of children born slow or “special,” of miscarriages and cancers, of coughs that will not go away and painful skin afflictions. The stories have become so common that older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age away from the business, with its potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues that nail workers handle daily.

A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems.

Whatever the threat the typical customer enjoying her weekly French tips might face, it is a different order of magnitude, advocates say, for manicurists who handle the chemicals and breathe their fumes for hours on end, day after day.

The prevalence of respiratory and skin ailments among nail salon workers is widely acknowledged. More uncertain, however, is their risk for direr medical issues. Some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.

Update: Governor Cuomo has set up a task force to conduct investigations into the city’s nail salons.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered emergency measures on Sunday to combat the wage theft and health hazards faced by the thousands of people who work in New York State’s nail salon industry.

Effective immediately, he said in a statement, a new, multiagency task force will conduct salon-by-salon investigations, institute new rules that salons must follow to protect manicurists from the potentially dangerous chemicals found in nail products, and begin a six-language education campaign to inform them of their rights.

Nail salons that do not comply with orders to pay workers back wages, or are unlicensed, will be shut down. The new rules come in response to a New York Times investigation of nail salons — first published online last week — that detailed the widespread exploitation of manicurists, many of whom have illnesses that some scientists and health advocates say are caused by the chemicals with which they work.

This is good news…as long as it results in real positive changes and doesn’t just get a bunch of salon workers deported.

Update: The Times continues its nail salon coverage with an interview with Sister Feng, a Chinese social media star who worked as a manicurist in NYC for four years.

Q. The Times reported that some immigrant manicurists said their bosses would withhold tips and verbally or physically abuse them. Did you ever experience this?

A. There were times when my tips were withheld. But as long as I thought my wages weren’t out of line with my labor, I wouldn’t go to my boss and ask for the tips. In nail salons run by Chinese, being verbally abused was commonplace, so I changed workplaces often. But it never happened in salons run by Koreans. I was never physically beaten.

(via mr)