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 Hard As Nails: Battling Toxic Chemicals and Low Wages in California’s Salons “independent contractors”—and excluded from basic labor protections as a result.