Nail salons proliferate in the United States.
So do their workers, who often make less than $US3 an hour — if they are paid at all — even at the ritziest salons.
The New York Times published a lengthy 6,000+ word story Thursday on underpaid nail salon workers, who are mostly immigrants and often in the United States illegally. Since most don’t speak much English, the NYT reports that they often don’t even know their wages are illegally low. Enforcement of labour laws in the industry seems nearly nonexistent.
How low are their wages?
Here’s the story of 20-year-old Jing Ren’s first day:
Tucked in her pocket was $US100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage.
It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars a day.
There are also fees for employees to learn new skills, like waxing:
In an interview, Mr. Sun, Ms. Ren’s boss, said the fees were “deposits” so employees did not leave with their new skills for another salon, and were eventually refunded. Ms. Ren said she never got back the $US100 she had paid.
And there’s pretty open pay discrimination based on ethnicity:
In general, Korean workers earn at least 15 per cent to 25 per cent more than their counterparts, but the disparity can sometimes be much greater, according to manicurists, beauty school instructors and owners.
Some bosses deliberately prey on the desperation of Hispanic manicurists, who are often drowning under large debts owed to “coyotes” who smuggled them across the border, workers and advocates say.
Many Korean owners are frank about their prejudices. “Spanish employees” are not as smart as Koreans, or as sanitary, said Mal Sung Noh, 68, who is known as Mary, at the front desk of Rose Nails, a salon she owns on the Upper East Side.
Salon owners defend their business model as a sort of indentured servitude:
At Sona Nails on First Avenue near Stuyvesant Town, a worker said she made $US35 a day. Sona Grung, the owner of Sona Nails, denied paying below minimum wage, yet defended the practice, particularly of underpaying new workers. “When a beginner comes in, they don’t know anything, and they give you a job,” she said. “If you work in a nail salon for $US35, it’s very good.”
Despite hierarchies, it comes down to the fact that almost no one working in the salons around New York is making a legal wage, let alone a living wage. Here’s the big picture:
Among the more than 100 workers interviewed by The Times, only about a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York State’s minimum hourly wage. All but three workers, however, had wages withheld in other ways that would be considered illegal, such as never getting overtime.
There’s much more to the story. Read the whole feature at NYTimes.com.