Bargain Nail Salons Aren’t All That Wonderful

Nail Salons

KTB on bargain nail salons.

$8 base cost. $1.50 tax. $2 tip.

Nail salons. We’ve all been in them – we’ve all reveled in the idea of being pampered for 30 minutes or more depending on the application process. Our go-tos range from Essie to OPI, light pinks and nudes for spring, dark shades of purple and red wine for fall. Some of us make frequent – weekly – visits to the salon, while the rest of us ‘treat’ ourselves only on occasion. It is a nice feeling to have freshly filed and manicured nails — we’re much more likely to shake hands with ease and not be anxious about fellow subway riders glaring at our chipped and broken nails (although in reality, who would really care?).  

Economics of Nail Salons

Despite the clean ‘feeling’ of having freshly manicured nails, the potential health risks have been known for ages, and more recently, the economic risks for nail salon employees have come to light. The New York Times recently released a report detailing the economic hardship suffered by manicurists, all too real ethnic prejudices, and unfair managerial processes.

In her groundbreaking expose for the New York Times, Sarah Maslin Nir determined that manicurists are “routinely underpaid and exploited, and endure ethnic bias and other abuse.” Nir’s piece, “The Price of Nice Nails,” uncovers the adverse circumstances surrounding the nail salon business and the exploitation of salon employees. [Ed. note: this expose pertained to New York salons exclusively]

Welcome to New York

No American metropolitan area rivals New York for nail salons — Los Angeles and San Francisco have about half as many salons per capita, according to the Times. It is not uncommon for legions of Asian and Hispanic women to be hurtled into battered Ford Econoline vans and dropped off daily for a 10-12 hour shift, only to pamper the fingers and toes of strangers.

Remember when prom or a wedding signaled it being time to indulge in a set of freshly painted fingers and toes? Today, as the Times asserts, manicures have become a grooming staple for women across varying economic circumstances.

According to census data, there are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States — 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, creating ‘more opportunity’ to further take advantage of increasing numbers of salon workers.

Underpaid and Overworked

For their expose, the Times interviewed over 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 forced to forgo pay. Beyond economic exploitation, workers suffer all forms of humiliation, “including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse.” Employers are seldom receive punishment for labor and other violations.

Wage theft and hazardous conditions are prevalent throughout the manicure industry. We often overlook the circumstances many of these women (and sometimes men) often endure. We leave the salon with glistening nails and a teeming sense of satisfaction – but at what cost? At whose peril?

Beauty at a Cost

Our own health is at risk when these chemicals inevitably seep into our bloodstreams, but now the entire industry has been called into question. Our moral compasses will tell us no but our minds will persuade us otherwise. We need to consider the ethical consequences of our decisions — despite these findings, the salon industry will continue to do well; it’s a challenge to give up a lifestyles we’re accustomed to living, manicures and all, but perhaps some of us will think twice when assuming a $2-3 tip is justified or sufficient. It’s not — it never was — and as these findings purport, it never will be. Only thorough policy reform can alter the economic fate of salon employees.

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