Nail salons in NYC: brutal sweatshops

"If you go to a [nail salon] with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers wages' are being stolen" — the $10.50 New York City manicure was built on illegal, shameful labor practices that brutalize the vulnerable immigrant women who sleep on coffin-life pallets and give up their children to caregivers because they can't make ends meet.

In a long, important investigative New York Times feature available in several languages, Sarah Maslin Nir reports on the conditions for women in the industry. They pay hundreds of dollars in up-front "training fees" and work for months without pay in "apprenticeships," then graduate to wages than run as little as $3/hour. The women work in a toxic environment, haunted by the spectre of cancers from inhaling dangerous solvents all day. Workers have their wages and tips stolen by management and are subjected to close surveillance from ranks of cameras.

A gold pendant embossed with Chinese characters and entwined with red thread hangs on the door of a two-story house in Center Moriches, on Long Island, about an hour's drive east from where Ms. Ren works in Hicksville. A wide creek that empties into Moriches Bay lies on the other side of the street. A Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle parks in the driveway.

It is the home of the owner of Nail Love, a salon in a nearby shopping center. The charm on the door invokes financial prosperity for the house's inhabitants. But the lives of the half-dozen manicurists who bunk in the basement are anything but prosperous.

They are employees of Nail Love. Their dimly lit warren is a barracks provided by the salon's owner, a common arrangement for workers in salons outside commuting distance from New York City. It saves owners money and sometimes even turns a profit. In some other such situations, workers must pay rent to their bosses.

Nail salon owners are often the success stories of their immigrant communities. Some owners rose from the ranks of manicurists themselves. In interviews, many owners expressed a vision of themselves as heroic, shouldering the burden of training workers and the risk of employing people who are not legally permitted to work in the United States. Fees extracted from new workers like Ms. Ren are proper compensation for the inconvenience of providing training, they said. Several owners said they felt betrayed when their workers quit or sued.

The Price of Nice Nails [Sarah Maslin Nir/NYT]

(Image: red/black pirate manicure, anneheathen, CC-BY)