Pedicure Politics

Brooklyn Moms: Your Nail Salon Boycott Is Foolish

Women who are washing their hands of pretty nails in the wake of a New York Times investigation into the industry are missing the point.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

In my corner of Brooklyn, and across New York, women put down their New York Times after reading “The Price of Nice Nails,” and vowed in the name of social justice to forgo their summer mani-pedis. Well-meaning as that may be, it stems from the same willful ignorance that allowed the terrible working conditions in nail salons to persist in the first place.

The conversations I’ve heard invariably follow the same trajectory. First: “I had no idea that the women were getting paid so little!”

Really, ladies? Did you think the woman who hardly speaks English at the place you’re dropping a $20 to get an hour-long pedicure, complete with foot massage and scrub down, was making half a living until you read otherwise in the Times? And do you really think taking work away from these women, instead of slipping them a $10 or even a $20 at the end, is the best way to help ensure that these women have better working environments?

Then: “Well, I always tip the woman who works on me really well.”

This is true. I, and most people I know, tip somewhere between 30-50 percent of the cost of the nail service, a percentage most of us don’t match at, say, restaurants. But again, I have to ask: If you thought the women were earning a decent living, why did you feel compelled to tip at such a high rate?

Finally: “I’m done going to nail salons.”

We’ll see. But taking that vow to “make a statement” at face value, the question is: Who are you making that statement to? As the Times notes, many of the salons are owned by women who worked their way up from scrubbing callouses off feet themselves. And most are owned by immigrants who epitomize small business. If we all stop going, and all these businesses just close down, nobody from the One Percent is going to care much.

A couple of women told me that this summer, they have a fine excuse for gross-looking sandal feet. As if last summer’s pretty toes are being replaced by a polish of conspicuous moral superiority.

Does that boycott extend to all the other industries with exploitative labor practices? Are these women also going to stop getting their cars washed, stop going to bars and restaurants where workers aren’t paid even the tipped minimum, stop buying local produce from farm workers exempted from every labor law in New York state? What do they think their Chinese delivery food guy makes? The stock guy at their bodega?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to step in Monday just days after he’d announced a labor board for fast-food workers, intended to set a higher minimum wage solely for that industry. And after he used his control of the Port Authority to get a better deal for airport workers barely eking out a living under miserable conditions. All to the good.

But how many times are we going to be shocked, shocked, that there’s gambling in Casablanca?

Nearly every service industry in New York exploits labor, and passes the savings on to you. As rents get higher and higher, smaller businesses especially can’t afford to stay here any other way. And shopping for fair-trade produce at Whole Foods, or painting your own nails, doesn’t do anything to change that.

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What about the tips? The Times story seem to treat base pay as the primary pay, leaving the question of gratuity mysteriously hanging, except for a couple of anecdotes. The reality is salon workers’ salaries are tip-based. Anyone who has been pretending not to know this is just a cheap jerk. Tip-based jobs are ripe for exploitation, and nail salon workers are neither immune to nor or alone in this. I’m still interested to hear what happens with the tips in most of these salons, as that would be much more representative of both what these women actually make and could also expose other ways in which tip-based workers are commonly exploited.

The Times also focused on the fact that workers are forced to pay to work—and in that, nail salons are hardly alone. From the restaurant industry (bartending school, anyone?) to white-collar firms with their unpaid internships, New York is built upon the Darwinian struggle to get a foot in the door. If a wealthy NYU student in film school is spending their summer getting coffee and picking up laundry for no compensation, did you really think that the nail salon industry was going to exceed these ethical standards?

As to the women who depend on customers coming in to make anything at all, what do the Times-reading ladies think will happen when they collectively stop getting their nails done? What about the ones who paid their bosses to get in the game—presumably because they figured that was in their economic interests—but haven’t yet made that money back?

The physical effects of being around these chemicals, on the other hand, really are stunning. But this is a failure of regulation, as the manufacturers have fiercely fought regulation of polish ingredients tied to cancer, miscarriages and more. Is the villain here really individual salon owners buying over-the counter-products that anyone can purchase in a beauty-supply store and using them in the way the manufacturer intended?

I’m all for new legislation and more active enforcement of existing laws to better protect these workers, and happy the Times piece has sparked so much conversation about and interest in the welfare of the industry’s workers. But I hope when women choose what to do next, they make a choice that will help the workers in these salons—not just provide themselves with another feel good-moment to make up for the ones they no longer want to get from a pedicure.

Shears worked for years in the service industry in New York and New Orleans. She’s legally prohibited from discussing some of her own experiences with exploitative workplaces, but they really don’t compare to those of the women working in nail salons.