Nailing Exploitation

The New York Times exposé of nail salons and their exploitation of immigrant women workers in New York City cannot come as a complete shock. Aspects of it exceed the worst suspicions - not being paid at all for three months' work? Paying a fee (a bribe?) to an employer to be allowed to work? But anyone who walked into one of these salons and saw the workforce and smelled the chemicals should have intuited the makings of a scandal.

Why? Because the scenario of exploited immigrant workers, particularly women, working in hazardous conditions, as well as of unenforced health and safety standards and wage and hour laws has a long and shameful history in the US. One of the first efforts launched by NCJW and other reformist women's organizations was assistance to women immigrants and their families. We met the ships at the docks to ensure that arriving women were not snared by traffickers. We organized relief programs, taught women to read and write English, and advocated for legal reforms banning child labor, ensuring a minimum wage, and requiring workers compensation for injuries on the job.

But the New York nail salons highlight how these issues arise yet again in today's context. Women who come to the US without job or language skills, without a sense of their rights as workers and indeed, as human beings here, and whose only encounter with the labor market is illegal exploitation, are perhaps the most disempowered people residing within our borders. For that reason our government at every level and our civil society write large must take extra special care to ensure such workers are protected from the abuses so easily inflicted on them.

Their situation is complicated because the salon is usually owned by members of the same ethnic group facing exploitation. Some of these business owners have gotten rich off a business model that depends on low-income women paying a fee just to perform free labor during a "training" period in hopes eventually landing a permanent job. Other shop owners are only one step up from the women they mistreat and ignorant of what is required of them by law.

In the background is an entirely unsupervised and unregulated cosmetics industry with revenue in the billions while workers are exposed to chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, hormone disruption, throat and airway diseases, and other adverse health impacts. Workplace protections against hazardous substances have been nonexistent.

All this takes shape in the shadows of a failed national immigration policy that makes exploitation nearly inevitable. When immigrants fear deportation if they complain about illegal conditions and wage violations, and even wage theft, enforcement of labor standards is severely weakened. The failure of Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform with a path to citizenship perpetuates situations like those found in the nail salon industry. No one working in our country and contributing to our economy should fear speaking up when her rights are abridged. And reproductive justice is certainly at issue when women suffer miscarriages and babies are born with developmental issues that are both linked to working conditions.

The saga of pay in the nail salon industry highlights a regulatory environment severely constricted not only by lax or missing supervision, but by severe cutbacks and understaffing that makes much-needed inspections rare, even for the most basic of labor laws. In New York, the state oversees wage and hour violations and has 115 inspectors statewide for 3,600 salons. While nail technicians must be licensed, reports of fraudulent or missing licenses are widespread.

Nearly three-fifths of minimum-wage workers are women, and those earning the minimum wage are disproportionately women of color. Even if minimum wage laws were enforced, that basic wage of $7.25 ($8.75 in New York state) is not enough for a woman employed doing nails or anything else to support a family and provide a decent life for her children. The tipped minimum wage, which covers nail salon workers, is a shockingly low $2.13, where it has been since 1991. Raising the federal minimum to just $9.80 per hour would lift a family of three out of poverty.

Hard questions should be asked. Certainly the cosmetics industry and its regulators must be called to account across the country. NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo has begun a substantial reform of state laws and policies governing nail salons. Upending a situation where competition for customers is based on keeping costs below what is actually needed to do business legally is going to lead to disruption in the industry unless customers are willing to pay substantially more.

In the meantime, Congress must return to immigration reform, enact a higher minimum wage, and push for tougher regulation of workplace health and safety, including ensuring women's reproductive health. Women empowered by legal immigration status and entitled to higher pay could then use their voice to join in demanding changes to the nation's woefully outdated and outmoded regulation of the cosmetics industry. People who come to this country should be able to make a living, free from exploitation, that pays a living wage.