New York’s Nail Scandal: Immigration’s Seamy Side

Published on May 13th, 2015

By Joe Guzzardi
May 13, 2015

Immigration’s sordid side surfaced last week when the New York Times published a major exposé on the metropolitan area’s nail salons. In a nutshell, the industry survives, or better said thrives, on cheap, illegal immigrant labor that enriches the salons’ owners. Because they’re so profitable, Manhattan salons have more than doubled in numbers over the last 15 years to 2,000. Their clients are often New York’s richest women.

The young manicurists, mostly Asian, arrive early, leave late, and put in twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. The federal minimum wage for nail workers is $2.13 hourly with the assumption that tips will supplement their base pay. If tips aren’t forthcoming, the workers have the fruitless task of trying to collect the difference from their managers. The lucky ones, then, are paid below minimum wage; the unlucky ones work for tips only. The lower the prices patrons pay, however, the less tip money the employee will earn. And often, bosses confiscate a portion of manicurists’ tip money as recompense for alleged policy violations.

But a manicure’s cheap cost makes the indulgence more affordable for women from all socio-economic strata even though it means the worker may live in squalor. Because illegal immigrant labor costs are so cheap, the price of a New York manicure, adjusted for inflation, has been flat for 25 years. A list of the city’s top ten cheapest parlors reflected an average price under $20.00.

Working conditions reflect a modern-day version of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, “The Jungle.”  The women are video monitored, and subjected to verbal and occasional physical abuse. Even though the nail industry subsists on illegal immigration, until the Times’ investigation employers were rarely, if ever, sanctioned. New York labor department officials and federal immigration authorities ignored the obvious, multiple violations.

The real life portrait that the nail business paints of exploited immigrant workers stands in stark contradiction to how advocates glowingly describe immigration. President Obama, explaining his reasoning behind his executive amnesty action and his many other pro-immigration statements, says more immigration strengthens the economy. If Jeb Bush decides to run for president, more immigration will be a cornerstone of his campaign. Bush recently sounded the same tone as Obama when he said that “immigrants create an engine of growing economic prosperity.” But in the nail scandal, the only prosperous ones are the owners, some of whom live on the swanky Upper East Side.

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington D.C.-based the think tank, explains that low and stagnant wages are not the result “of benign, abstract economic forces.” Rather, they’re the result of conscious choices Congress makes after being intensely lobbied by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association and other similarly powerful groups.  EPI concluded that employers “steal billions from their workers every year,” theft that a passive Congress enables because it hasn’t the political will to stand up against the lobbies and for Americans.

Unscrupulous employers are particularly enamored of guest worker programs because the laborers, under threat of deportation, have to take whatever punishment their supervisors dole out: grueling hours, dismal pay, no overtime, and substandard working conditions. Big business loves cheap labor, and in this era of commercial influence and greed, big business gets what it wants.

Instead of bowing to every perceived corporate need, like more indentured guest workers even though the economy has millions of unemployed Americans, Congress should focus on creating a nationwide common good. One way of helping to meet that goal would be to reduce immigration from its one million a year average until the middle-class is back on its feet.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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