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Why it's so easy to exploit nail-salon workers — and so hard to solve the problem

If you've gotten a manicure at a nail salon, there is a very good chance that your manicurist was making as little as $10 a day. She probably wasn't getting overtime. And if she spilled a bottle of nail polish, she may have had to pay out of her own wages to clean it up.

The New York Times released a massive investigation into the exploitation of workers at nail salons in New York City. They interviewed over 100 workers — and all but three had been making illegally low wages, or had their wages stolen.

This isn't just a New York City problem. Frankly, it isn't just a nail-industry problem either. Nail salons — like so many other industries, from agriculture to hospitality — are fueled by vulnerable foreign workers whose lives are controlled by a broken immigration system. Immigration policy doesn't just allow exploitation to happen. It makes it far easier.

Being unauthorized makes someone easy to exploit — but so does having a work visa

Most of the workers that the Times interviewed were immigrants who spoke only a little English. That made it difficult for them to find work in the US, making salon work an appealing option despite the low pay. But it also made it less likely that they'd have any understanding of their rights — or know what they could do to get paid. The Times says:

During the nearly three months Ms. Ren worked unpaid in the Long Island nail salon, like many manicurists, she had no idea that it was against the law, or that the $30 day wage her boss finally paid her was also illegally low. As an immigrant, she felt happy to have any work at all, she said, and scared to complain. Furthermore, who would listen?

Many of the salon employees didn't have legal status to work in the US. That makes them incredibly vulnerable: if a worker tries to seek better treatment, her boss can just threaten to report her to immigration authorities.

But paradoxically, legal immigrants can also have their immigration status used against them by exploitative employers. In 2014, the Urban Institute did a report on labor trafficking in the US — in which workers aren't just being exploited, but trapped in their jobs. (It's possible that some of the workers in the Times piece are trafficking victims.) They found that most of the victims of trafficking are actually legal immigrants. As I wrote last year:

Many traffickers kept control of workers' passports or work papers. When one woman asked for her passport, her employer said she'd be killed on the street if she left — and retaliated by giving her no food for four days. In some cases, traffickers deliberately let their victims' work visas expire. Often, traffickers would threaten to report workers to immigration authorities if they complained about their conditions.

In the Times report, an investigator from the New York Department of Labor marvels at how hard it was to get manicurists to talk to investigators, and said they were "running scared." It's not hard to see why.

Many immigrants are being exploited by fellow immigrants

What makes the Times piece especially heartbreaking is that many of the salon owners exploiting their immigrant workers are immigrants themselves. The Times outlines a racial hierarchy, with Korean manicurists at the top and Latinas at the bottom. But in many cases, as the Times shows, immigrants are being exploited by residents of their own country, who claim they're trying to serve their communities:

Many owners said they were helping new immigrants by giving them jobs.

"I want to change the first generation coming here and getting disgraced, and getting humiliated," said Roger Liu, 28, an immigrant from China, seated inside the salon he owned, Relaxing Town Nails and Spa in Huntington Station, N.Y. As he spoke last summer, an employee, a woman in her 50s, paced the salon, studying a scrap of paper scribbled with the steps of a pedicure, chanting them to herself quietly in Chinese.

It was her first week working in a salon, she said. Mr. Liu was not paying her.

In some cases, immigrants' own relatives are the ones exploiting them, or assist in getting them to the US under false pretenses only to find themselves trapped in a job. When an immigrant comes to the US, especially when she doesn't speak English, the people she knows are the only network she has, and her fellow countrypeople are the only community. Exploitative employers pervert that relationship. They take some of the most vulnerable people and isolate them from the rest of society completely.

The US could be doing more

As the Times reports, the New York Department of Labor didn't engage in a wide-scale sweep of nail salons over labor violations until last year. But it's rare for law enforcement to take even that much interest in the victimization of immigrant workers. In fact, local law enforcement will often encounter trafficking victims but take the side of the employer. The 2014 Urban Institute report documented one case where police helped a trafficker chase down a worker who had tried to escape. Another victim's employer forced him to overstay her work visa, and immigration officials refused to believe him:

"The immigration officer is like, 'Why did you overstay here?' Like, he treat me like I commit...a felony. And I'm like, 'Well, the situation asked for it. I am a victim of trafficking.'

"He's like, 'That's not true. It's not happening in the US.'"

Obviously, law enforcement should extend more trust to possible victims. And it might help if law enforcement stopped focusing on sex trafficking to the exclusion of labor trafficking.

But fundamentally, it's hard to imagine how the government could root out exploitation of immigrants when so many of the victims are scared to come forward. Unauthorized immigrants have every reason to fear the government — that's not something a sympathetic government official can fix on his own. And even among legal immigrants, the control that employers have over work visas makes it very easy for exploitative bosses to prosper in secret.

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