Who’s really paying the price for those beautiful nails?

In New York City, manicures are inexpensive for customers but come at a high price for workers. The New York Times found that nail salon employees work for very low wages or for nothing, usually after paying a fee to be hired. Sarah Maslin Nir, who spent a year investigating the story, talks to Judy Woodruff about how nail salons have gotten away with illegal and unhealthy working conditions.

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    It sounds like a story from another era, or at least another place, disadvantaged women working long hours in unhealthy conditions for meager wages, and sometimes, at least to start, no real pay.

    But a two-part series in The New York Times found all this is happening today in the nail salons of New York City and other big cities. Among the findings, the women often have to pay shop owners a fee to be hired and routinely share cramped, run-down living quarters.

    Reporter Sarah Maslin Nir spent a year investigating the story, and she joins me now.

    Sarah Maslin Nir, welcome to the NewsHour.

    What got you interested in looking at the plight of these women who work in a nail salon?

  • SARAH MASLIN NIR, The New York Times:

    Thank you for having me.

    It was actually a little bit of a fluke. I was getting a pedicure at one of the very odd 24-hour salons in Manhattan, and I marveled at it to the woman doing my toes. And it was about 10:00 a.m. And I said, how come — who works the night shift? And she said, oh, I work the night shift. I said, but it's day.

    And she said, I work 24 hours a day, six days a week. I live in a barracks above the salon. They shake me awake to do night treatments. And on the seventh day, I sleep for 24 hours and come right back.


    So, what did you find?


    And I thought, this woman is enslaved.


    And you went on. Go ahead, yes.


    I did. I went beyond this woman.

    And I ended up interviewing over 125 manicurists. And I found that that woman is the extreme, but not that far off from the reality. As you said before, people have to pay for their jobs, up to $200, sometimes even more. Then they work for free for weeks or months, until an arbitrary time when the owner decides that maybe they merit being paid. And then their starting salary is $30 a day.


    And you found a kind of hierarchy in terms of how they're paid, is that right, depending on what country they may have been from, their family was from?


    Well, that was particularly startling. The industry in New York City at least is about 80 percent Korean-owned, and that's created a hierarchy the city's 2,000 nail shops, a hiring hierarchy.

    Hispanic woman are viewed as the bottom. They're viewed as unsanitary. And Chinese are above them. And Korean women, particularly young, beautiful women, are paid the most. And that governs everything about the salon, not just the pay.

    I had salons where the Hispanic workers say they are not allowed to speak 12 hours a day, while their Korean colleagues are free to do whatever they want. And it's very painful for them.


    Now, we have some maps, Sarah, that show the major cities where nail salons are.

    Of course, you mentioned New York City, but you also looked at Los Angeles, San Francisco, some other places. And what you see is that women of all economic classes or at least those neighborhoods are patronizing these shops. What did you find?


    Well, manicures have become this ultimate oxymoron, cheap luxury. There is no such thing.

    Someone is bearing the cost of your discount. And that someone, I found, is always the worker, the person least able to afford it. But actually the proliferation of salons in New York City, we have the most per capita of any metropolitan city in the U.S. You could call us the manicure capital of the United States.

    It's led to a total decrease of prices. Manicures are $10 average here, I found. They're $20 across the rest of the nation. Why, in the most expensive city in America, where a latte is $4, is the manicure price so low? And, Judy, that is because the workers are not being paid.


    How did you get these women to talk to you? You write about that that wasn't easy.


    It was very challenging. And I worked with a team of extraordinarily, talented translator reporters who worked alongside me, six of them, two in each of the languages, Chinese, Korean and Spanish.

    And actually there are pickup spots located in Flushing, where workers go to get jobs across the tristate area and they are shuttled off. And every morning, the streets of Flushing are filled with nail salon workers, almost like migrant workers. And we spent about three months going every single morning and just asking these women, tell me your story.

    And what is so interesting is this act of a manicure is a very intimate thing. You're holding hands with a woman for half-an-hour. You're staring into her eyes. And people don't see them still. And so when we said to these women, here's a chance to be seen, some brave women took it, though, understandably, as illegal immigrants working undocumented and without licenses many times, many were afraid.

    And I understand. They had every reason not to tell me their stories, but some truly did.


    Well, there is much more to this story. You're — the second part of the series that ran today has to do with some of the health risks. It's really a remarkable series in The New York Times.

    Sarah Maslin Nir, we thank you.


    Thank you so much.

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