New York Times Discovers Work is Hard

For manicurists in major cities, work is hard, but how does abolishing the jobs help those workers?

The New York Times has released a major exposé of the nail salon industry: “The Price of Nice Nails.”

It shows some pretty horrible stuff. Because many of these workers are in the country illegally, they cannot sue their employer for assault when they are physically assaulted—as sometimes happens. In general, however, much of the story shows the arrogance of moralizing about market operations.

Once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, manicures have become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum. There are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.

But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.

Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a second-story salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers.

Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; the minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.

So here’s the question: Are these manicurists going to be better off if the Labor Department of the State, or the courts, close down three fourths of the nail salons?

Obviously, if those women had other preferable options, they would just quit and take advantage of those other options. But they don’t do that. They voluntarily try to get jobs as manicurists because they believe it is their best shot at making a living.

[See also, “White House Preaches Higher Minimum Wage, Pays Nothing.”]

In the midst of painting a picture of this dire, hopeless, dead-end job, the report lets slip that some of these manicurists have become wealthy business owners. So they themselves worked as these poor immigrants and then eventually saved enough to become bosses and owners rather than underlings paid less than minimum wage.

There was a lot in the story that made me feel sad for these poor people. But they are obviously here in the country voluntarily and they go to work at these places because they believe they are better off doing so than trying to find some other job.

Government intervention will only make these people worse off than they are now. Don’t take away what people have, because it is too little, so that they then have nothing.