The Shocking Truth Behind Your $10 Manicure

Photographed by Mike Garten.
Treating yourself to a manicure or pedicure (or both) is a regular part of plenty of our beauty rituals — so much so that they may no longer be considered treats. But, when you fork over cash for an on-the-cheap nail job, who is your money actually going to? And, how is the woman who is tending to your digits as you casually flip through a magazine or scroll through your Instagram feed being treated behind the scenes?

In an article published today, The New York Times takes a deep dive into the world of New York City nail salons. The reporter follows a 20-year-old manicurist, who recently immigrated from China, uncovering the terrifying and inhumane realities she and many other women in this industry are faced with every day. 

Most of the women who are employed at nail salons are immigrants, a majority of them Asian or Hispanic. When they first get a job, it's regular practice for them to have to pay a $100 entry fee, and then work for free until they're deemed "worthy" of a salary. When they do get paid, it's often well below minimum wage — sometimes a daily salary that comes out to about $3 an hour. Many of them live five or six to a one-bedroom apartment, and are treated like modern-day indentured servants. 

It's something that, until recently, customers have remained blithely unaware of — or have just chosen to ignore. We've become so accustomed to the $20 manicure-pedicure special that we balk whenever we have to pay more than $10 to get our nails done. We've become a society of consumers who are more likely to inquire about a salon's cleanliness than the way managers treat employees. 

The Times reports that the New York Department of Labor conducted its first sweep of area nail salons last year, finding that in more than 80% of cases workers were unpaid or underpaid. But, some nail salons still treat their employees fairly. "You can tell by the prices, first off," says Tara Teschke, a manager at tenoverten in Tribeca and a licensed nail technician. "There's a reason your mani/pedi is only $20." 

So, getting your nails done for cheap comes at a cost. What can you do about it? Teschke says it's important to make sure to give your technician your tip directly, and it should raise an eyebrow if the front desk doesn't allow you to. "Even if you can give it to them directly, you can't be sure the owners won't just take it," she warns. Finally, she suggests asking to see your tech's license, as legal workers are much more likely to be paid fair wages. If you're looking to effect change on a larger scale, you can also petition the NY Labor Department to speed up its investigations of the salons. Investigations are already underway, but very little headway has been made. 

The main takeaway here is to be aware and ask questions. "If it's the kind of place you're not sure is doing everything legally hiring-wise, you can be just as skeptical about their practices when it comes to cleanliness," says Teschke. Look for places that have non-budget prices, because those deals might not be worth it for everyone involved. Sure, it may set you back a few extra dollars, but you'll have peace of mind that the woman who takes care of your hands and feet is being taken care of, too. (The New York Times)


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