The New York Times has a fascinating story by Sarah Maslin Nir about conditions in New York nail salons. According to her, thousands of immigrant nail technicians are being exploited by salon owners.
As if on cue, cavalcades of battered Ford Econoline vans grumble to the curbs, and the women jump in. It is the start of another workday for legions of New York City’s manicurists, who are hurtled to nail salons across three states. They will not return until late at night, after working 10- to 12-hour shifts, hunched over fingers and toes.
On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived from China, stood among them for the first time, headed to a job at a salon in a Long Island strip mall. Her hair neat and glasses perpetually askew, she clutched her lunch and a packet of nail tools that manicurists must bring from job to job.
Tucked in her pocket was $100 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.
It’s a well-reported, well-written story, and I have no doubt that there are some bad things going on in the nail salons. However, I think Nir is missing some important aspects to what’s going on in New York nail salons. When you encounter a tale of exploitation like this, there are some important questions you need to ask.
Probably the first of those question should be, If working in the nail salons is so awful, why don’t the women don’t just quit and get better jobs?
I’m sure just asking that question will make some readers want to tell me to “check my privilege,” but I think it’s important to think seriously about the answer. The news is full of complaints about McDonald’s and Walmart employees being paid only the minimum wage. That’s still more than these nail technicians are earning, so you’d think they would be applying for those jobs, offering to work for the same pay (but without protesting in the streets about it). So why don’t they? Why don’t they get better jobs?
Nir never address the issue directly, but she nevertheless supplies a few answers:
Almost all of the workers interviewed by The Times, like Ms. Ren, had limited English; many are in the country illegally. The combination leaves them vulnerable.
These workers are foreigners in this country illegally, so the biggest reason why these women can’t get better jobs is that the United States government doesn’t want them to work here at all. Most legitimate businesses, including major employers like McDonald’s and Walmart, are simply not allowed to hire them. They have to take what work they can get.
Also, they’re probably afraid to complain too much about working conditions because they fear they’ll be deported if they attract too much attention. My boss can only fire me, but Ms. Ren’s boss can get her thrown out of the country if she pisses him off.
Besides, even if their immigration status allowed them to work here legally, they still wouldn’t be allowed to work as nail technicians in New York because they haven’t met the state licensing requirements.
Between U.S. immigration law and New York State professional licensing requirements, government restrictions have robbed these women of much of their bargaining power.
The next question to ask is What do these women have to offer employers?
Not much, according the the facts in Nir’s story. Most of them don’t even know how to do the job yet, so they will have to be trained by whoever who hires them, and their inability to speak English means they can’t serve a customer without help.
In fact, their lack of English language skills severely limits the jobs they can do: Not only do they need to find a job where talking to English-speaking customers is not a requirement, they are also limited to seeking employment at businesses where the managers speak their language.
Another question to ask is What do these women get out of this?
The 20-year-old woman mentioned in the quote above, Jing Ren, starts out by paying $100 to get the nail salon job, and she works for almost three months for free, after which she earns $30/day for a 10-12 hour shift. Here’s the last report on how she’s doing:
She quit on March 8. Her boss said nothing; one colleague hugged her goodbye. After 10 months she had made about $10,000, she said.
Last month, she found a $65-a-day job at another nail salon.
Even if she only works an 8-hour day, that’s less than the New York minimum wage (but more than the minimum for tipped employees).
That doesn’t sound very good, but it does bring me to the next question. These workers certainly make less than regular American workers, but How do their wages compare to wages where they came from?
The Davos global wage calculator tells me that the average private sector wage in China is 32706 CNY, or about $5267. So Ms. Ren paid the equivalent of one week’s wages for the average Chinese worker to get her nail salon job, and worked for free for three months, and yet still managed to earn $10,000 that year. That means that at the age of 20 she is already earning the world average wage, or almost double the average wage in China. With her new $65-a-day job, she will be able to repeat that annual performance by working only three days a week. If she works a full five days a week, she will earn triple the average Chinese wage.
To put that in perspective, the equivalent for an American would be a 20-year-old without a college degree getting an offer to work overseas, paying an $800 fee to get into the program, working through a 3-month internship, and then going on to earn $80,000 the first year and $120,000 the next.
I’m not saying that all the nail salon owners are wonderful people — there’s way too much going on in that article (and its followup) to believe that. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped an ambitious, hard-working, risk-taking young immigrant like Ms. Ren from prospering. And as with most immigrants, if she has children, they will probably do even better.
(Obviously, I don’t know much about Ms. Ren’s specific circumstances, and I’m greatly simplifying things for purposes of this post, but I don’t think it invalidates the point that she seems to be doing pretty good compared to where she came from.)
The last question, and arguably the most important one, is What do these women want?
We can figure out what these women want by looking at the choices they make. Jing Ren chose to leave her home and cross the ocean to America to work as a nail technician in a string of seedy New York nail salons. And within a year, her mother came over to do the same. That tells us a lot.
Which brings me to my special bonus question: What happens next?
Well, the Governor has a (hastily pulled together) plan of sorts:
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered emergency measures on Sunday to combat the wage theft and health hazards faced by the thousands of people who work in New York State’s nail salon industry.
Nail salons that do not comply with orders to pay workers back wages, or are unlicensed, will be shut down.
In other words, if Cuomo’s task force finds workers who are being exploited, they will solve the problem by taking away their jobs? I understand that the goal here is to coerce nail salons into treating workers better by threatening to put them out of business, and it’s possible that this could have a net positive effect. But I guarantee that talk like this is scaring the crap out of all those workers Cuomo says he’s trying to protect. This could easily turn into a disaster that puts thousands of them out of a job. And if Cuomo thinks the nail salons are exploitative, he’s really going to hate some of the alternatives (NSFW).
“We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.”
“Basic rights” like the right to work in a job they find acceptable for a wage they find acceptable?
Some of the proposed regulations seem like they might improve health and safety, but others show a real lack of understanding of the problem:
Salons will now be required to be bonded — which is intended to ensure, through a contract with a bonding agency, that workers can eventually be paid if salon owners are found to have underpaid the workers.
Yeah…salon owners employ illegal immigrants to do unlicensed work at illegal wages, but I’m sure they’ll get right on that bond thing…
The framework for the emergency measures began to take shape shortly after the first article was published on Thursday, according to Alphonso B. David, counsel for the governor. Staff members from several agencies reacted strongly, and began to call one another upon reading the findings, convening on Friday for hours of brainstorming sessions to hash out the plan. A decision was made to take emergency measures rather than go through the usual route by which policies are updated, which involve time-consuming steps like periods of public comment […]
I hear all the best government work begins that way. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing, the plan to force nail salons to pay their workers more might succeed. As Rich Lowry puts it in his wildly off-the-mark opinion piece,
Surely, one reason that salons can pay so poorly is that the supply of illegal workers is so plentiful.
And this supply of labor must, at least at the margins, crowd out workers already here who might consider working in salons if pay and conditions were better.
These immigrant women bring very little to the bargaining table except their willingness to work in unpleasant conditions for low pay. If you force the salon owners to spend more money on wages and equipment, they’re not going to stick with their unskilled labor force. They’re going to replace them with nail technicians who are already trained, who speak English, and who have the legal right to work here.
Apparently there’s also been a public backlash against low-cost nail salons in New York, with lots of middle class women saying they’ll stop using them. I think their hearts are in the right place, but a move like that that could put the cheap nail salons out of business, which would put immigrant workers like Ms. Ren out of a job.
I understand the desire to try to help, but it’s important to remember that these nail salon jobs (and other low-paying jobs like them all over the country) provide a path up out of poverty for thousands of people every year. The wrong response could shut that down and do a lot more harm than good.