Here’s A Shocker: Your $10 Manicure Isn’t Actually Ethical

The New York Times came out with the first part of their multi-part expose on the nail industry and revealed what surprised many, but really shouldn’t: that $10 manicure you get from the place down the street isn’t actually that ethical. After exhaustive reporting, interviewing many nail salon workers, and armed with an army of translators, Sarah Maslin Nir discovered that the vast majority of manicurists and nail techs working throughout New York City are drastically underpaid, forced to work long hours, and sometimes abused and berated by owners, forced to pay them to learn more valuable skills, and are generally exploited, operating in what is essentially a modern sweatshop.

Nora Cacho was paid about 50 percent of the price of every manicure or lip wax she did at a Harlem shop that was part of a chain, Envy Nails. She frequently earned about $200 for each 66-hour workweek — about $3 an hour. In sandal season, if she was lucky, she left the shop with slightly more — $300 each week, she said. On snowy days, Ms. Cacho, who is part of a class-action lawsuit against the chain, would return home with nothing. The chain’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to the horrific treatment of these women by their employers, the customers some nail salon workers encountered were terrible.

Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.

“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.

Manicures are so cheap in New York that for many women — myself included — they are no longer a luxury, but just another stop on an errand-filled Saturday. We crow over the salon that has a $15 manicure-pedicure special, silencing the thought that with prices that cheap, the women cutting our cuticles can’t be making anything close to a livable wage. The Times expose is certainly upsetting because of the abysmal conditions and the flagrant disregard for humane working conditions, but what is more surprising to me is the fact that anyone is surprised that this is the case. There is simply no way a $10 manicure is ethical. We are all to blame, because by participating in this, we maintain a blind complicity. Admitting that doesn’t make it okay, but that’s an uncomfortable truth that we all have to live with now.

The great hope is that this will actually spur some change. For everyone out there hopelessly dedicated to your ritual of Bellinis and pedis, don’t stop getting your nails done. The first step in creating change is recognizing and being made aware of the problem, and the second is to start actually making more ethical choices. Here are some tips for being an actual, socially-conscious manicure participant, courtesy of the author of the piece.

However, to actually boycott nail salons because of these horrible practices would be stripping these women of any money they’re making, even if it is a pittance. Try extending yourself beyond the 20 percent tip that you graciously bestow these women, and if there is a movement to unionize these workers, do what you can to support it.


Image via Flickr/Metro Centric