‘I am worth less than a shoe': The tragic truth about getting cheap manicures

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Today's New York Times published an in-depth piece titled "The Price of Nice Nails," detailing what goes on behind-the-scenes in nail salons, and it's not pretty.


We learn that New York City's legion of manicurists — largely undocumented immigrants — are often working unpaid or underpaid.

Some sad facts from the story by Sarah Maslin Nir:

  • Workers are often asked to pay salon owners $100-$200 as a "training fee."
  • After being trained without pay, many workers earn just $30 a day for 10-12 hours of labor.
  • Nir writes: "Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish."
  • The Times interviewed 100 nail salon employees and only about 25 percent said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York State’s minimum hourly wage.

In addition, there's a racial caste system at work in the nail salons, according to Nir:

Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often shockingly plain-spoken in their disparagement of workers of other backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.

Oh, and then there's the flat-out racism:

Many Korean owners are frank about their prejudices. “Spanish employees” are not as smart as Koreans, or as sanitary, said Mal Sung Noh, 68, who is known as Mary, at the front desk of Rose Nails, a salon she owns on the Upper East Side.


The article describes the abuse, lack of oversight by the The Labor Department, as well as the living conditions of salon workers; one 20-year-old woman from China lives in a one-bedroom apartment with five other people. Many of the undocumented immigrants working in nail salons either don't know that the labor practices they're experiencing are illegal, or are afraid to speak up, because of their citizenship status. Nir notes that even in the most expensive neighborhoods in New York, like the Upper East Side, the salons have cheap prices for customers, yet starting wages for workers are still only around $30 to $40 a day. Imagine: Living in New York on $30 a day.

Nir delves into the economy of manicures, as well as the humiliation involved:

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.

Read more here and here.