A manicure is a cheap beauty luxury of city life, but the service bears hidden costs below the surface. Nail salons have become big business for immigrant communities—and pose big risks for immigrant workers. In 2015, The New York Times exposed widespread labor abuses in New York nail salons, revealing brutal and coercive conditions in small, often underregulated shops. The story soon fueled pressure from officials and labor advocates to reform the industry, but today, the first-ever in-depth national study of the nail-salon industry, by the University of California–Los Angeles Labor Center, shows how working conditions have not changed much across the country since then.
According to the study, the typical nail-salon worker is poor and works extremely long hours in a small room awash in toxic fumes. Although the sector has long been a mainstay enterprise for Asian-American communities, especially Vietnamese refugees and Chinese diasporas, roughly eight in 10 workers are designated low-wage workers, meaning they earn less than $13.46 an hour. A full-time or part-time worker might take home just $9 or $10 per hour, respectively, which could be as low as $30 or $40 a day—though many serve as the main breadwinners for their families. Often workers, who may be undocumented, are not even considered “real” employees, but misclassified as “independent contractors”—and excluded from basic labor protections as a result.
Nail salon workers are 80 percent female, three-quarters of Asian descent, and mostly aged 25 to 44, generally with no more than a high-school education. They’re also disproportionately likely to lack health-care coverage, despite daily toxic exposures on the job. Many don’t even get break time during work. Surveys of Vietnamese-American workers in California revealed that the majority earned less than the minimum wage, and just one in 10 was paid overtime.
Reflecting the overall precariousness of the “gig” economy, the workers’ systematic exclusion from official labor law enables impunity to thrive. Among California’s Vietnamese salons, staffers work on a traditional “ăn chia (split profits) payment system,” based on a 40-60 income-sharing hierarchy. Labor advocates have criticized the system as “exploitative because owners asked the workers to take clients with services that earn less or are least desirable.”
The study quotes Van, a Vietnamese salon worker in her 30s, about the 40-60 pay split: “My pay varies based upon how much my customers tip me, how busy the salon is, and the prices of services…. I only earn about $1,800 per month. I constantly have to buy my own nail supplies, which can cost up to $1,000 per year.”
California lawmakers are trying to tighten classification standards by requiring “independent contractors” to certify that they are actually “free from control of the hirer.” But even if more workers are properly classified, nail work generally involves toiling in harsh conditions, where every breath can be laden with toxic chemicals tied to cancer and respiratory ailments. A daughter of a nail-salon worker reflected in the report about the hazards that surround many immigrant women’s bodies:
When the salon was busy, my mother and other workers would go a whole day without eating or using the restroom. When my mother worked, nail salons had no ventilation, no level of oversight…. My mother’s health deteriorated throughout the years, including blurrier eyes and digestive issues…. Sometimes I ask whether all the money we earned was even worth it to treat my mother’s ailments now. It was all about “work, work, work,” and making money.
In addition to growing oversight from labor and public-health authorities, sector-based initiatives like the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (CHNSC) have emerged. An industry-wide effort established in 2005 by Asian Health Services, the CHNSC, which collaborated on the study, runs a Recognition Program to reward “high-road” employers that use greener materials and provide staff training and proper ventilation. Labor groups in New York have launched a similar scheme, the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition. But the effort has faced resistance from employers in the Asian immigrant community.
According to the study’s co-author Preeti Sharma, key to these collaborative programs is leveraging buy-in from owners, while driving worker empowerment. In California, she says via e-mail, “Because [the program’s standards] focus on health and environment conditions, [the program] impacted all salon staff, including owners,” who were incentivized to improve their business prospects. Campaigns should also enlist the public in raising standards: with a manicure costing as little as $10 in some cities, consumers must also be educated on how the “low prices in the nail salon…get carried out through low wages.”
In the announcement of the report, CHNSC director Lisa Fu underscored a mutual need for education among workers and owners: “There is a lack of understanding of labor laws on the part of both employers and employees. Salon owners have a responsibility to treat workers well and follow labor laws. It is also critical that workers and owners have access to multilingual resources explaining workers’ rights and health and safety issues, as well as reproductive health and immigrant rights.”
Enforcement of workers’ rights and safety and health standards in salons has been a tremendous undertaking of New York State agencies, but workers still fall victim to wage theft and exploitation. Our philosophy is that to create truly safe and healthy nail salons, we need to organize workers.
Soccoro, a New York City nail-salon worker who has been doing outreach work with NY Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, testified about her work about the balance between equity and sustainability for the industry:
We do this work because of need, but we also have to see the positive side and do the work with love, asking God to protect us day after day, and talking with our compañeras, and even the owner to see where we can come to agreement in order to improve the situation in the salons where we work.
But the ugly toll of a booming beauty trade presents ethical questions for consumers and labor: Healthy workplaces mean empowered workers, who can bargain collectively and advocate for their rights. To create the conditions for a sustainable job, a healthier workplace environment must be matched with fair wages and working conditions. When workers organize, an ethical business and a just job can go hand in hand.