A New York Times article exposing the sweatshop-like conditions New York-area manicurists are made to endure has us thinking twice about where we are getting our mani-pedis. In New York, the nail salon industry is the fastest-growing in the country and yes, manicures in New York are cheap, averaging about $10.50 in Manhattan, but of course, it is the manicurists paying the real price for such inexpensive pampering.
The article outlines working conditions that sound more like something out of one of the notoriously terrible garment factories in Bangladesh than a nail salon in New York state. “Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse,” Sarah Maslin Nir writes. “Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.” Manicurists are paid shockingly low salaries, often less than minimum wage, if they are paid at all. Even getting a job at a salon can be costly for new manicurists, who are usually charged a training fee of $100 to $200 dollars or more. Salon owners won’t pay the manicurists a salary until they have been deemed worthy, and much of this is done at the boss’ discretion. It can take weeks or even months for a manicurist to get an actual salary and – you guessed it – the pay is paltry.
One Upper West Side nail salon pays their manicurists a meager $10 dollars a day, a stark contrast considering that swanky part of town’s wealthy population. Manicurists also have to endure docked pay and not being compensated for overtime. One worker reported that she was making less than $3 dollars an hour. Because manicurists get tips, New York State allows them to be paid below minimum wage (kind of like waitresses). But salaries falling so far below minimum wage, so far below a livable wage in a city like New York where even salaried workers struggle to pay rent is just plain cruel.
The industry is also rife with prejudice. Manicurists are paid or treated according to their ethnicity, race or nationality. According to the Times, Korean manicurists make the most (because so many salons are owned by Korean people) – about 15 to 25 percent more on average – while Chinese workers are paid second highest and Latina and other Asian workers are paid the least. Many of the Korean owners are openly racist, particularly against Latina manicurists.
Of course while the workforce struggles, the nail salon owners are raking in the dough. “Sophia Hong, who owned Madison Nails in Scarsdale, N.Y., prides herself on her art collection, including at least one work by Park Soo Keun, a Korean artist who had a painting sell for nearly $2 million at Christie’s in 2012. The art hangs in her home in Bayside, Queens, one of several properties she owns, according to property records, including a Manhattan apartment in a luxury building overlooking Columbus Circle. In 2010, she was sued by an employee at her Scarsdale salon for failing to pay overtime.”
With working conditions sounding more like something out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the thought of contributing to such an exploitative industry in the name of beauty is enough to make one’s stomach churn, and the system is poorly regulated. So what’s a manicure-obsessed gal to do? At this rate, it looks like the best way to make sure you’re getting an ethical mani in New York City is to do it yourself. If you’re going to get a manicure, don’t go for the cheapest one around. Someone is paying for that, one way or another. And as the Times points out, merely tipping more won’t help the problem: Some manicurists aren’t getting the tips that are owed to them.