Your Manicurist is Likely Being Paid Illegal Starvation Wages

Arielle Zionts May 7, 2015

A major New York Times investigation finds systematic labor abuse at New York City nail salons. (Matthias Schaefgen / Flickr)

After inves­ti­gat­ing 150 nail salons over 13 months, New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir found that man­i­curists are rou­tine­ly under­paid and exploit­ed, and endure eth­nic dis­crim­i­na­tion and oth­er abuse.” The find­ings are pre­sent­ed in a long-form mul­ti­me­dia sto­ry and offered in Eng­lish, Span­ish, Kore­an and Chinese.

Nir fol­lowed man­i­curists who, after leav­ing their cramped liv­ing arrange­ments, hop into vans that shut­tle them to nail salons in the city and even into dif­fer­ent states. When they first begin work, many are forced to pay a train­ing fee of around $100-$200, some­times more. Many remain unpaid dur­ing an appren­tice­ship peri­od” until they can prove they are skilled enough to deserve pay­ment, but this pay­ment is usu­al­ly below min­i­mum wage.

Twen­ty-one-year-old Jing Ren’s sto­ry illus­trates this process. She paid $100 in a train­ing fee, then worked three months with­out pay before earn­ing a wage of less than $3 an hour. 

Because nail salon work­ers are con­sid­ered tipped work­ers” under state and fed­er­al labor laws, they can be paid below the state’s $8.25 min­i­mum wage; employ­ers are required to make up the remain­der of the worker’s pay if their hourly rate comes out to below min­i­mum wage. The inves­ti­ga­tion found that boss­es rarely pro­vide that legal­ly man­dat­ed sup­ple­men­tal pay. Over­time pay is sim­i­lar­ly rare for man­i­curists, who may work up to 12 hours a day, sev­en days a week.

Nir also found that man­i­curists’ pay is often tak­en away for minor trans­gres­sions. When 47-year-old Qing Lin spilled a drop of nail pol­ish remover on a client’s Pra­da san­dals, she was forced to pay for dam­ages and fired from the salon she worked at for 10 years. I am worth less than a shoe,” she stated.

Pay also can cor­re­late to eth­nic­i­ty. Nir found that Kore­ans are paid the most, fol­lowed by Chi­nese and Lati­no work­ers. Non-Kore­an work­ers Nir spoke with are some­times pro­hib­it­ed from speak­ing and forced to eat in a sep­a­rate loca­tion. Oth­er doc­u­ment­ed abus­es include work­ers being mon­i­tored on video, phys­i­cal and ver­bal abuse and poor safe­ty stan­dards that lead to can­cer and mis­car­riages caused by expo­sure to chem­i­cals and dust.

Nail salon own­ers are rarely inves­ti­gat­ed or pun­ished for their labor vio­la­tions. New York’s Depart­ment of Labor inves­ti­gates a few dozen — around 1% — of the over 3,600 salons in the state per year. When inves­ti­gat­ed, the depart­ment finds wage vio­la­tions 80 per­cent of the time. The Times said all but three of the more than 100 work­ers they inter­viewed have had wages with­held in ille­gal ways.

Because many man­i­curists are undoc­u­ment­ed and are often unaware of labor laws and speak lim­it­ed Eng­lish, many do not report on their boss­es’ ille­gal activities.

Nir is host­ing a Face­book chat on Mon­day, May 11 at 1 PM EST. Par­tic­i­pants are asked to sub­mit ques­tions ahead of time. If you want an eth­i­cal man­i­cure, the Times has tips on that.

Arielle Zionts was a Spring 2015 In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern and free­lance reporter. She is now a pro­duc­er at the Inter­faith Voic­es radio show in D.C. She stud­ied anthro­pol­o­gy at Pitzer Col­lege and radio at the Salt Insti­tute for Doc­u­men­tary Stud­ies. Arielle loves to ride her bike and lis­ten to pub­lic radio. She tweets at @ajzionts and her web­site is ariellezionts​.com.
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