Nail Salon Workers: Labor Exploitation Reveals Gaps for Traffickers

By Claire Duguid

A recent New York Times exposé, The Price of Nice Nails, delves into the exploitation behind many of New York’s nail salons. From wage violations, worker abuse, and a lack of investigations and prosecutions, the article highlights violations of workers’ rights characteristic of labor trafficking.

Many manicurists frequently get their jobs after paying a $100-$200 recruitment fee to supposedly cover the cost of training. They then work for a period for no pay—sometimes up to three months. On top of initial fees, some salons charge deposits as high as $100 for training in a new skill, which is required for workers seeking a raise. The fees tie the workers to the employer so that they are unable to find work elsewhere while either to paying off their debt or waiting for their deposit to be returned. It seldom is.

Besides staggeringly low incomes of often less than $30 per day, the New York Times article documented wage manipulation such as punishment in the form of pay docks. Manicurists tell stories of their tips, or entire wages, being stolen for spilling a bottle of polish or dropping the nail clippers.

Some salon owners also target illegal immigrants because they’re easier to exploit. The immigrants may owe large sums of money to the people who brought them into the country, have limited options for other employment, and be unlikely to report low wages or other abuses to the authorities.

The Times also reported a dearth of investigations and prosecutions into New York’s nail salons. Thousands of salons are on record in the state, but the Labor Department sees less than 30 cases annually. Of the cases it does open, the department typically finds wage and other violations over 80 percent of the time. Even with investigations, collecting enough evidence for prosecution is difficult given the unregulated financial records of the salons and a lack of cooperation from employees, who often fear reprisals.

All businesses are responsible for guaranteeing their companies are not run on exploitation. They must eliminate abusive practices like charging employees recruitment fees, pay docking, and inhumane working conditions. These practices prevent workers from leaving those who are exploiting them, making them vulnerable to further abuse.

To combat labor violations, all levels of law enforcement, including between headquarters and local jurisdictions, as well as victim advocates need to collaborate. Additional training for law enforcement to recognize and respond to potential labor trafficking cases is also necessary. We have to tackle trafficking comprehensively, which requires partnerships across multiple government agencies and with relevant civil society victim advocates.

This human trafficking awareness course for salon workers in Ohio provides U.S. trafficking statistics and draws attention to methods of victim identification. Nail salons are not the only businesses guilty of extreme labor violations. But the sheer number of salons responsible for abuses must be addressed. Exploitative employers should be prosecuted and workers should be compensated and empowered. Until nail salon owners are held to account, there’s little incentive for them to stop.

To learn more about how to disrupt the business of human trafficking, check out our blueprint.


Published on May 15, 2015


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