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The Women Working in NYC's Nail Salons Are Treated More Terribly Than You Can Imagine

We talked to the "New York Times" reporter who spent a year investigating the true cost of manicures in New York.

by Allie Conti
May 7 2015, 1:00pm

Photo via Flickr user bettyx1138

This morning, the New York Times came out with a mammoth investigation into the city's nail salons that took more than a year to put together. If you've ever wondered how the women providing you with pedicures for $15 a pop can afford to live in a town that eats money, reporter Sarah Maslin Nir found the answer: It's because they share cockroach-infested rooms with a dozen other women while making $10 a day—if they make anything at all.

"The Price of Nice Nails" is more than worth reading in its entirety, and the Times has published it simultaneously in four languages so that the more than 100 women Nir interviewed for her piece can read about their lives. I talked to her about how it came together.

VICE: How did you get interested in the story?
Sarah Maslin Nir: About four years ago, I was at a 24-hour spa in Koreatown. It's one of the Vogue top-secret best-bet salons—a really unusual place. It was my birthday, and I treated myself to a pedicure at 10 AM. And I said to the woman, "It's so crazy that this is a 24-hour salon. Who works the night shift?" And she says, "I work the night shift." And I said, "Well, it's daytime. Who works the day shift? What do you mean?"

And she said, "I work six days a week, 24 hours a day, I live in a barracks above the salon, and on the seventh day, I go home to sleep in my bedroom in Flushing, and then I come right back to work."

And I was like, This woman's in prison. People had to shake her to keep her awake. And then she would do a treatment. I just thought it was crazy.

"And she said, 'I work six days a week, 24 hours a day, I live in a barracks above the salon, and on the seventh day, I go home to sleep in my bedroom in Flushing, and then I come right back to work.'"

So once you got the go-ahead from your editor, what was the first piece of reporting you did?
Well, one of the first things I did was I had translators in the Korean language, and [did] Chinese language and Spanish language prep. Because I thought, if this is just so open that this woman is speaking, maybe it will just come out. And I found a lot of stories about people being robbed by their bosses—stolen wages.

And then once I had these tips, I started looking into lawsuits that people had already filed, because I figured if someone's brave enough to file a lawsuit, maybe someone's brave enough to speak with me. So I guess I started with the bravest, and I ended with the most fearful.

The story starts with the anecdote of people standing on the street corner waiting to be picked up and shipped to different parts of the state and parts of the country to salons. I actually spent every morning for about three months at those pick-up spots with a translator or two, going from woman to woman saying, "I wanna tell your story. Will you tell it to me?"

Did you ever just go from nail salon to nail salon, or was that too risky?
I started doing that toward the end, because it's a very collusive industry. Everybody conspires. The experts I've spoken to say the owners teach each other the methods of how to exploit the workers and how to avoid prosecution. So I was afraid if I started going from salon to salon, an owner would catch me and tell all the others, and it would all get shut down. So only toward the end would I go to salons, and I'd actually go get a manicure and talk with the women, sometimes with a translator sitting next to me, and just have these quiet conversations.

One of the most interesting things about the story is I learned how to ask questions. At the beginning, I'd ask, "Where do you live?" And they'd say, "Oh, I live in a one-bedroom in Flushing, Queens." And then I realized that when they live in a one-bedroom, they lived with six to eight other people. So my questions changed. I would say, "How many people do you live with?" and they'd say, "Oh, twelve."

One of the most shocking things is that you got the owners to respond to you, and they basically admit to operating on slave labor. Why did they talk to you?
I think the owners see themselves as heroic. They're hiring a really difficult-to-employ class of people—people without papers, people [who don't know the] English language, and with few transferable skills. So they think they're doing their countrymen a favor.

Besides the anecdotes you got related to nail-salon culture, what's the most shocking thing you found?
It took me over nine months to get the Labor Department to give me information from their database, which they are legally required to do based on the Freedom of Information laws. And the most shocking thing was how little they go into salons. They have two people who speak Korean. Nobody's looking.

Your story makes these abhorrent conditions seems so pervasive that it seems like there might not be a guilt-free place to get your nails done in the entire city.
I did not find any good actors. Out of all the people I spoke to, only three said they were paid in a way that seemed proper—hourly, with different types of compensation. And two of them had worked at the same salon.

The idea of cheap luxury is an oxymoron. It doesn't exist. The only way that nail salons exist and manicures exist at the price they are in New York City is with someone else bearing the cost of your discount. And in New York City the person bearing the cost is the worker—and that's the person who can least afford it.

UPDATE: Read the second part of the story, which explores how manicurists are exposed to chemicals that cause miscarriages, cancer, and skin problems.

Follow Sarah Maslin Nir on Twitter.

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