I Went Undercover as a Nail Salon Worker in NYC

July 1, 2015 | American-In-Training

I spent a year working some pretty awful jobs as an undocumented immigrant in New York City, so when the New York Times published Sarah Maslin Nir’s exposé describing cases of abuse in the New York City nail industry last month, I wasn’t surprised. I was used to paying around $50 for a mani-pedi combo in my native country, South Korea, and had never set foot in a New York City salon because I worried that the low prices had a high, unseen cost. But on the day I was fingerprinted by the USCIS – a huge stepping stone in my immigration process – I started training as a manicurist in the city. I knew the report had provoked government response, but I wanted to see, first-hand, if that reform was reaching workers.

Most nail salons in Manhattan are Korean-owned, and many of them felt unduly targeted by Nir’s portrayal of Korean-American small-business owners. As a result, getting hired proved to be fairly difficult. Most salons said no, citing “shop regulations.” One even denied posting an ad. Finally, one salon asked me to come in for an interview. I was informed by the owner that I would be unpaid for two weeks during training, had to purchase my own tool-kit for $50, and was required to commit to five days a week. As I left the salon, which also operates as a full-service spa, I was unable to find the Worker’s Bill of Rights that New York nail salons are now required to display in full view.

It was a discouraging start, mirroring the shady business practices Nir exposed in her piece. But during the first two weeks at the salon, I was trained thoroughly on grooming, safety and hygiene requirements. Considering the retail cost for the tool-kit was more than $50, the fee felt more like an initiation process. The whole experience was not unlike an apprenticeship. I was soon allowed to receive customers, along with any and all tips that came from them.

Almost immediately, I got started giving a shrill young woman and her friend a gel mani and pedi with another manicurist. When the bill arrived – $80 per person – the women protested loudly. “But why is this so expensive?” they wailed, “everywhere else is so much cheaper!” I asked them pointedly if they hadn’t read Nir’s piece. Receiving only a blank stare in return, I slowly explained. Unaffected, they continued to complain until my co-worker gave them both a $20 discount, then left my co-worker and I a $6 tip on a $120 bill. Another co-worker, a hair-stylist, expressed her sympathy, then asked: “What New York Times article?”

As I took more and more customers, I started receiving hourly wages along with my tips. The tips were usually a flat $3 – $5, and rarely, a $20. Like the wide variance in my tips, I found that the impact of the Times exposé also varied: the majority of my customers, save for one who worked “in the business side of the New York Times,” simply did not care or were quick to change the subject. Many other would-be customers came in and asked about our prices, then quickly left, turned off by our $50 price tag on mani-pedi combos.

My co-workers were generally unaware of the article, and one was shocked when I outlined it for her. She had friends who worked at salons like the ones described by Nir, where manicurists churn out 10 to 20 manicures a day for rock-bottom prices. I asked if she thought the business had suffered or changed since the article, and she shrugged, “Not really; we’ve always charged twice as much.”

During one slow shift, the owner brought up a new piece of legislation that had been introduced in response to the exposé. Under this new law, a new class of salon workers would be created – trainees – who, after registering with the state, will be allowed to work towards obtaining a manicurist license on the job.

“In reality, this doesn’t change anything,” said the owner, scoffing at the suggestion that this was an improvement. “It’s purely bureaucratic; what would actually do some good is to impose a minimum price-charge for these services,” she said. “You want good service, a clean environment? All of these things, training, disposable files, buffers, quality materials – these costs add up. You go to those cheap $20, $25 places, you’ll see that they’re filthy, disgusting. You can’t pay rent on those prices, let alone run a good business.” The minimum price for mani-pedi combos in Manhattan, in her opinion, ought to be “no less than $40.”

She has a point. I don’t doubt that there are very disturbing trends of abuse and suffering within the nail industry, and in a salon with a lower price point my experience would have been very different. But all of this led me to believe that the blame the Times puts on nail salons is somewhat misplaced. The vast majority of customers are all too happy to ignore the realities of a convenient, cheap service, and the people who are most vulnerable and marginalized – immigrants and migrant workers – are often made to bear the brunt of the consequences in order to compete for the chance to make it in America.

The nail industry is in sore need of reform. However, Nir’s generalization of minority business owners and workers is lacking. The “ethnic caste system” that Nir describes doesn’t exist in a bubble, but within the context of a larger, mutual class struggle. As Miliann Kang, the author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work points out in her response to Nir’s piece, the problems within the nail industry – and any other service-oriented industry – emerges through “a complex chain of customer demand for cheap, quick services, lack of regulation, lax enforcement of existing laws, globalized migration flows, and ultimately, the bottom line of profit-driven, winner-take-all markets and mentalities.” Kang further describes how, in an industry where the entire wage structure is suppressed in order to subsidize the pampering of another, being the highest paid worker doesn’t mean some workers win and others lose, but rather “some workers scrape by with a few more dollars in their pockets.”

Nir effectively lets consumers off the hook for the sweatshop-like conditions in some salons by racializing the issue – that the Korean business owners who struggled to create these businesses during their wave of immigration are now perpetuating that struggle on those they feel are beneath them. What Nir fails to realize is that this hierarchy, flimsy at best, exists wholly beneath the heels of the assimilated American consumers who force prices lower and lower by perpetuating a culture of convenience built on underpaying those who have few other options than to get their hands dirty. Anyway, who wants to be the best treated worker at a sweatshop?

Considering this, it isn’t difficult to imagine that if consumers changed their perception, then perhaps salons wouldn’t be compelled to cut corners so drastically at the expense of their workers. Allowing consumers to separate themselves from the struggle that goes into their service is irresponsible at best, and if people are truly disturbed by the labor violations of the nail industry, then they can vote with their dollars. The general reaction to the exposé was to pass labor regulations on nail salons, but in truth what we really need is for people to accept that a manicure isn’t the cheap service they think it is.