Nail Salons: Modern-Day Sweat Shops

Think before you make your next nail appointment. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t like salons, for hair or nails. For all the times you come out looking fabulous, it’s like a house of horrors while you’re in there. The waiting, the endless stupid conversations you can’t help but hear, forced to sit in uncomfortable chairs listening to rude customers treat workers like crap, or vice versa — gross. My nails are most often cut down, neatly filed — by me — and polish free.

But I just read an article in the New York Times that gave me a whole new reason to hate nail shops. According to the piece, U.S. census data puts the number of nail salons at more than 17,000, and those numbers are growing exponentially now that manicures and other grooming services have become more affordable and accessible to a larger clientele.

But no seems to be talking about how terribly the industry’s workers are exploited. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon owners and workers, in various languages, and found most of the workers don’t even get minimum wage or some of them aren’t paid at all. If that’s not bad enough, they’re often treated like crap.

Nail salons are like a modern-day version of a sweatshop. Workers may have their tips docked as punishment for doing something wrong, or suffer physical or verbal abuse, and they’re under constant surveillance. The article talked about workers whose nerves were so on edge, their hands shook too badly to polish nails. Even worse, employers are rarely punished for labor violations.

The list of abuse detailed in lawsuits filed in New York courts is horrifying. Workers alleging they were paid $1.50 an hour for a 66-hour work week; manicurists charged for drinking water; workers not paid at all on slow days or kicked as they sat on pedicure stools and then verbally abused. It’s beyond sad.

What’s worse, it’s often minorities exploiting other minorities. Chinese immigrants looking for better lives come to the U.S. pay for the right to work in a shop on a months long probation. You know, until salon owners are convinced they’re worth a wage  — a crappy wage at that.

Many of these workers speak limited English, some are in the country illegally and others work ridiculously long hours only to go back to tiny, overcrowded living arrangements — all of which contributes to the most heartbreaking vulnerability.

There’s even a pecking order for the abuse. Racial and ethnic caste systems like those found in New York dictate not only pay but also treatment. Koreans are at the top. They often make twice as much money as their peers because Korean owners dominate the industry and are often openly critical of workers from other backgrounds.

“Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom,” according to the aforementioned article. The article said more experienced workers can earn up to $70 to $80 a day. I wasn’t impressed with that number even before I factored in the ridiculously long hours manicurists work.

I was looking at my nails just this morning, thinking I need a manicure. But I may do without. I have no desire to contribute anything to an industry that treats women and minorities so horribly.