Hidden in Plain Sight: The Dilemma of Temporary Outrage

SAN FRANCISCO - MARCH 03:  Linda Donly-Reid (C) receives a manicure at JT Nails March 3, 2006 in San Francisco. California As
SAN FRANCISCO - MARCH 03: Linda Donly-Reid (C) receives a manicure at JT Nails March 3, 2006 in San Francisco. California Assembly Speaker pro Tem Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has renewed calls to pass new legislation to clean up unsanitary nail salons after a woman in Fort Worth, Texas died as a result of a staph infection caused by bacteria from a nail salon. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The New York Times recently published an investigation into nail salons and the dire conditions workers at these salons endure: health hazards due to the chemicals they're exposed to, outright exploitation by their employers, and abuse and neglect from customers. The article was an excellent investigation into a sprawling industry. But it made me wonder: have we become so collectively oblivious that we need a front-page news story to tell us that these workers are being exploited?

All it takes is connecting some dots: we live in an economy where a business must make money in order to survive and must make a profit in order to thrive. If a nail salon manages to offer manicures for $10, how do we think that's being paid for? It's a matter of common sense that the shortcuts we take to avoid paying large sums of money mean that someone somewhere is being exploited for that price tag to be what it is.

It shouldn't take long for us to remember the fire at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of factory workers, all of whom were working for clothing factories that supplied companies like Joe Fresh, Primark, Benneton and JC Penney. Or let's come back to this continent: there are migrant workers all over agricultural fields in the U.S, who are undocumented, underpaid and overworked so that our bunches of kale and baskets of strawberries make it into the chilled shelves of our grocery stores and eventually our refrigerators. It might be easier to ignore this exploitation because it doesn't happen right in front of our eyes: we're not seeing the sweatshops across the world that produce our clothing and we're not venturing into the Central Valley and chatting with the workers heading back from a long day at work.

But that's precisely the problem. We choose to turn away and to look away. Maybe we're oblivious as a community. Or worse, apathetic. It doesn't matter. It doesn't say much about us collectively that we can be outraged at such circumstances when The New York Times publishes a cover story highlighting these abuses but that somehow, throughout all these years, we haven't realized that this might be a problem. At least now, it's out in the open. Governor Cuomo is putting together a special task force to look into these abuses and if it works, there might be some resolution. But is it guaranteed? Absolutely not. Already, there's a difference in responses from Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

After the fire at Rana Plaza, all the companies involved vowed to change the status quo. They formed a coalition, brought in stakeholders and did what any special task force would do: have lots of meetings. The results of those are slow moving, though some progress has been made. And what that means in the interim for factory workers is equally unknown.

As long as people have vulnerabilities such as not being able to speak English or have proper documentation to be in this country, and as long as demand for low-cost goods and services exists, exploitation will continue. The system only encourages it: an economy still in recovery, an immigration system without a path to citizenship, employers who are willing to exploit those who don't know the full extent of their rights, with or without citizenship, and a public that demands low cost goods and services. On moral grounds, it's unfair; on legal and ethical grounds, it's illegal and completely wrong.

But part of the burden lies on us to pay attention: if enough people remember to take a good look at the salon they're in the next time they sit down for a manicure, or have the common courtesy to start a conversation with the woman who's sitting across the table holding their hand, maybe we'll start to notice what happens around us sooner. And maybe we'll care enough to do something about it. Our own insincerity in how much we care and how much effort we're willing to put into doing the right thing is only apparent at our outrage when we're shamed into caring. It's like when a corporation only responds to a customer's complaint because a consumer news reporter reaches out -- avoiding bad publicity becomes their main concern. We are doing the same thing. And not owning up to it only perpetuates how often we will ignore what's happening in front of us. Should we be called out on it, we'll feign outrage for a few days by posting and re-posting the article on Facebook and Twitter, with vows to leave better tips for our manicurists. It's a privileged way to "solve" the problem. But it hardly ensures it won't happen again.

We have to acknowledge that the solution isn't an easy, one policy fix. It's a systematic change to the structure of how labor laws are enacted and enforced and a cultural change to consumer attitudes. Ultimately, it's also about accountability on a societal level. We might be getting started on that path but right now our efforts are piecemeal iterations of a larger change that needs to happen across multiple industries. The question is: can we commit to making that change and then follow through? If not, we'll be back to this in a few months' time, surprised at the exploitation that's happening right in front of us, but one that we failed to recognize.