Times report uncovers slave labor in nail salons

It’s been awhile since a newspaper’s investigation has caused the nationwide stir that today’s New York Times probe into nail salons has. And with good reason; slave labor isn’t supposed to happen here.

But that’s what the industry is, the Times report — The Ugly Side of Nice Nails — reveals.

Among the hidden customs are how new manicurists get started. Most must hand over cash — usually $100 to $200, but sometimes much more — as a training fee. Weeks or months of work in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship follows.

Ms. Ren spent almost three months painting on pedicures and slathering feet with paraffin wax before one afternoon in the late summer when her boss drew her into a waxing room and told her she would finally be paid.

“I just burst into laughter unconsciously,” Ms. Ren said. “I have been working for so long while making zero money; now finally my hard work paid off.”

That night her cousins threw her a party. The next payday she learned her day wage would amount to under $3 an hour.

“I think the owners see themselves as heroic,” reporter Sarah Maslin Nir tells Vice. “They’re hiring a really difficult-to-employ class of people—people without papers, people [who don’t know the] English language, and with few transferable skills. So they think they’re doing their countrymen a favor.”

She also revealed a truism about the new economy. The price for cheap goods falls on the lowest rung.

“The idea of cheap luxury is an oxymoron,” she said. “It doesn’t exist. The only way that nail salons exist and manicures exist at the price they are in New York City is with someone else bearing the cost of your discount. And in New York City the person bearing the cost is the worker—and that’s the person who can least afford it.”

This is not just a New York City thing, Vox points out. It’s not only a nail salon industry problem either.

Many of the salon employees didn’t have legal status to work in the US. That makes them incredibly vulnerable: if a worker tries to seek better treatment, her boss can just threaten to report her to immigration authorities.

But paradoxically, legal immigrants can also have their immigration status used against them by exploitative employers. In 2014, the Urban Institute did a report on labor trafficking in the US — in which workers aren’t just being exploited, but trapped in their jobs. (It’s possible that some of the workers in the Times piece are trafficking victims.) They found that most of the victims of trafficking are actually legal immigrants. As I wrote last year:

Vox says it might help if U.S. authorities stopped focusing on sex trafficking at the expense of labor trafficking.