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Thuy Vo

You probably read Sarah Maslin Nir’s excellent investigative report on the labor conditions inside New York nail salons, which are brutal and including wage theft, poisoning from breathing in cosmetics, and physical abuse. There are relatively simple answers to solving these problems, which are strong labor enforcement of state and federal law. The report convinced Andrew Cuomo to announce “emergency measures” to help these workers, including more inspections and a multilingual attempt to inform workers of their rights. We’ll see how real this is once people stop paying attention.

Anyway, the unfortunately most common response is what we often see from empowered individualistic consumers, which is “how can I consume ethically.” The question turns the issue from being about the workers to about the consumer. We see this in apparel activism too often from people who think that buying second-hand clothing is an answer to sweatshop labor. Michelle Chen answers the question about what you can do quite simply–support worker organizing–and she provides plenty of information about how that is shaping up. Amanda Marcotte takes on the middle class guilt part of this debate more directly (with plenty of links of this sort of thing if you are so inclined). She writes:

I don’t mean to pick on people,I really don’t. These huge labor and immigration issues can feel overwhelming and I get that people want to know what part, however small, they can play. But that leads to this unfortunate tendency to frame these issues around middle class complicity, as if that were the main problem and not just a sideshow. The problem with that is that these sort of individualized rituals of self-sacrifice in the name of purity do almost nothing to actually improve the lives of marginalized or exploited people. In some cases, it might make it worse—in this case, for instance, the end result will be that a smaller proportion of customers in nail salons will be good tippers who are nice to the workers. Great.

To be fair, some writers cleverly used the “how to assuage your guilt” click bait headlines to compel people to take real action, such as calling the authorities when they discover a salon is breaking labor laws or to surreptitiously distribute materials informing workers of their rights in their native language. These are still small actions, but they are actions that might actually help a real person who actually needs help, and that’s not nothing. But most of what I saw out there was focused on how you personally can feel better about yourself. That’s not helpful to people who actually need help.

And then she says what you actually can do, which is to make this a political issue and call your politicians to demand they do something about it. Like just about everything else when it comes to workers, the way to solve these problems is to give workers power. That means actively taking power from employers. The nail salon workers are the modern version of immigrant sweatshop labor a century ago and while we’ve outsourced that work to people we can exploit far out of our sight, the need for service labor means there are still workers who we do see. We can demand the rigorous inspections of these agencies with shutdowns and heavy fines for employers who violate the law.

Of course, if you are a libertarian, your hot take on all this is that there’s no way we should do anything about these workers. After all, how can we know what they want since we are not them? Of course we could ask workers what they want but that would mean libertarians talking to real people and I mean, c’mon. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

Getting more government involved when it’s not at the behest of these workers, however, is only going to lead to more hardship for those most marginalized. When state investigators find a bunch of undocumented immigrants working as unlicensed manicurists—yes, being a manicurist in New York technically requires a state permission slip—for under the minimum wage, do you think they’re going to stop with forcing employers to institute a pay hike? Do you think salon owners under more investigative scrutiny from government agents are going to be more attune to requests from their underground employees?

I don’t want to diminish the concerns of workers in these communities. But this top-down, outsider, progressive, law-and-order view concerns me. Would workers be better off with no jobs or means to support themselves? Living back in their home countries? Maybe in some cases, yes, but we don’t know because we are not them. And I tend to believe that immigrant salon workers, being as intelligent and rational as the rest of us, are capable of weighing their own interests and situations and acting accordingly.

This of course is nothing more than the same Gilded Age arguments conservatives have always loved, that workers make rational decisions and that if they didn’t think it was in the interest to work in dangerous jobs, they wouldn’t do so. Nevermind that government can actually make that work less dangerous or that the unions these people inevitably oppose can do the same or that workers don’t actually have choices if the “choice” is work or starve. For conservatives, this is all a fun theory they can sit in their comfy houses and pontificate about. They aren’t interested in actual workers and their lives.

Then there’s this:

Increased FDA oversight can’t educate nail workers about the importance of leaving the job when they’re pregnant, or help make doing so financially feasible; it can’t instill simple best practices, like wearing gloves, that could mitigate skin problems; it can’t encourage salon owners to install work on better ventilation systems. These sorts of education and outreach efforts are best undertaken by public health nonprofits and people in these communities. And they would have a much more immediate effect than the years or decades it could take to get accomplish similar feats via federal regulation.

Actually increased oversight can do those exact things. Maybe not through the FDA but through OSHA. OSHA can educate workers. OSHA can instill best practices and mandate wearing gloves. OSHA can fine employers for not installing ventilation systems. And if there’s a reason that it is hard to make federal regulation work on these issues, it’s because people like Brown and her plutocrat masters spend money opposing these regulations.

Quite the hot take there.

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