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How to get an ethical manicure: a guide to spotting worker exploitation

You should definitely do what you can to make sure the person doing this is getting paid.
You should definitely do what you can to make sure the person doing this is getting paid.
(Brian Brainerd/Denver Post via Getty)

After reading yesterday's heartbreaking New York Times exposé about the exploitation of nail salon workers, some of my colleagues and readers alike had the same question: is there some way I can get a manicure and know for sure that I'm not exploiting an immigrant worker?

If you don't live in New York, your local nail salons might not pay workers as miserably as the ones the Times investigated. But worker exploitation and even labor trafficking certainly happen — in nail salons and in other service industries — and the best thing that you can do is to be aware of what it looks like.

The good news is there are possible solutions out there — both ways to identify businesses that are engaging in fair labor practices, and ways for individual customers to check up on workers. And while some of these suggestions are specific to the nail-care industry, it might be a good guide for customers who might be concerned about worker exploitation in other services like landscaping or maintenance.

Here's how you can get a manicure without turning into a human rights abuser.

1) Understand the difference between trafficking and exploitation

Guatemalan trafficking victims

A group of teenage girls after their rescue from traffickers. Johan Ordonez/AFP

According to Rebecca Pfeffer, a professor at the University of Houston who studies labor exploitation and trafficking in America, the best thing a customer can do is be aware of worker exploitation and know where to look for it. But to do this, it's extremely important to understand the difference between a worker who's being exploited through low or illegal pay, and one who's being trafficked — who's being forced or coerced into staying at her job.

The two often go together. Some behaviors can indicate that something bad is going on, Pfeffer says: "whether the worker displays any fear of their employer; whether they're free to talk to anyone they want at work. Another thing you might look at is whether people seem to be in charge of their own finances. So if you're giving tips, and someone is collecting those tips, or if all of the money is collected communally, you have no guarantee that someone is actually going to be paid a fair wage from that."

But not all underpaid workers are being trafficked, and if you're confident that a salon is sketchy, you'll want to know which agency to call to investigate them. Pfeffer says the thing to look out for in potential trafficking cases is whether the worker has control over her own movement: "During the day, are they allowed to take a break and leave? At the end of the workday, is everybody in a place, leaving together in a group, and being taken somewhere? And does that happen on their own accord, or is it facilitated by a third party?"

2) Call the damn hotline

If you have some confidence that a business is exploiting its workers, call your state's department of labor.

If you think a business is trafficking its workers, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

manicure fancy phone

Put those fancy nails to use! (Craig Barritt/Getty Images Entertainment)

If you're uncomfortable enough at a salon or other business that you don't want to go back, ask yourself why. Seriously consider the possibility that anything you saw that could be evidence of exploitation or trafficking is something an investigator would want to know about. You shouldn't file a report based on zero evidence, and you certainly shouldn't exaggerate what you saw. But if what you've seen and the questions you've asked make you wary enough that you want to stop going somewhere, you shouldn't assume that someone else will notify the authorities about it.

3) Ask owners for more transparency about where their money is going

In a blog post yesterday, Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir recommended that customers go to more expensive salons. Pfeffer agrees, to a point: "With [manicures] and with a lot of other things, we have to know that if you're paying very little for something that involves human work, that person is not making very much money." In her experience, higher-end businesses are generally less likely to exploit their workers.

But the only way to know for sure is if a business says explicitly that it charges customers more so that it can pay workers a good wage. "In some other businesses," Pfeffer points out, "they are very transparent about their wages, and about the steps that they take to avoid exploitation in their supply chain. I think a call for more of that would certainly make a difference."

If you're going to a higher-end nail salon, it couldn't hurt to ask. An owner might not always tell you the truth — but if the salon is legit, they've just learned they can use that to appeal to customers.

4) Trust your instincts, but ask questions

In my conversations with colleagues, I quickly discovered that people can often sense something's not right about the salon they're visiting. "We've all had that experience," says Pfeffer. "I know I have. I've gone into one nail salon, and the atmosphere feels so different from another. 'Okay, I feel like something is weird.'"

"So what do you do?" she continues. "And the answer is that you can ask questions. And I always do now. 'How much do you get paid?' 'Do you get to keep your tips?' 'How long have you been here?' Sometimes I'll just say, like, 'Where do you live?' Just getting a sense of whether they have the freedom to come and go as they want."

celebrity manicure

(Nick Smith/BuzzFoto)

In other industries, it's not very easy to interview workers — you can't interview the farmworker who picked your grapes. But Pfeffer points out, "In a nail salon, where you're sitting face to face with someone for 30 minutes, you have a lot of opportunities to ask a few questions" in a gentle way that doesn't necessarily set off any alarms.

5) Be aware of language barriers

One of the reasons immigrant workers can be exploited to begin with is that they don't speak English fluently, or at all. And even if nothing is wrong, a manicurist might be reticent to carry on a conversation in a language she barely speaks. Conversely, an exploited manicurist might not want to talk about her exploitation in a language her exploiter speaks better than she does.

A couple of my colleagues had had good experiences when they spoke their manicurists' native language — they would hear about the manicurists' homes and families, and come away convinced that the salon treated its workers well. In another case, though, a colleague's manicurist described her life using the Chinese word for "bitter" or "hardship." "And I never went back," the colleague says.

Most of the workers in the New York Times story are Korean or Latina, but most manicurists in the rest of the United States are Vietnamese; you can also find salons with Chinese or Latina technicians. If you have a friend who speaks the salon worker's language, consider taking him or her along. (Treat him or her to a manicure or a foot scrub. It's the least you can do.) If not — and if you can do it unobtrusively — consider getting a translation app like iTranslate that has voice recognition.

6) Don't just feel guilty. Try to resolve the dilemma.

Many of my colleagues have already tied themselves up in ethical knots over whether to stop getting cheap manicures. On the one hand, they say, they don't want to participate in exploitation. But on the other hand, if they don't go to a cheap salon, an exploited worker might make even less.

The point of seeking out businesses that treat their workers well is that you want them to get more customers and hire more people. If there are more job opportunities at good salons, that's good news for poorly paid workers at other salons.

But this is where the difference between trafficking and exploitation really becomes important. As long as a worker is genuinely free to leave a bad job, no matter how terrible, then you should not feel guilty about going to a business where workers are better paid. If you're worried that a worker isn't free to leave, you're not just dealing with a pay problem — you're dealing with a human trafficking problem. And you should call that in.

7) Find a way to label good businesses

There actually is a model for a local group to identify and certify nail salons that are doing the right thing. The bad news is that it's not exactly focused on workers' pay — it's focused on health concerns. But it's a demonstration of one way a customer can know with confidence she's getting her nails done at an ethical salon.

Healthy Nail Salons

A Healthy Nail Salons advocate in a Boston suburb talks to a salon owner. (Essdras M Suarez/Boston Globe/Getty)

The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative started in the Bay Area and now operates in several of California's biggest counties. Julia Liou, a co-founder, works at a community health clinic for Asian Americans; she told Vox that she noticed a lot of nail salon workers were coming in with health concerns "from breathing difficulties to dermatitis — and even up to a lot of stories of workers who had had breast cancer, reproductive impacts such as miscarriages, wondering if their children had developmental delays." Workers didn't know there was any connection between their health complaints and the salon products they were being exposed to every day. But Liou says many common products in nail salons have been linked to reproductive and neurological health dangers — a topic the Times actually covered in another part of its investigation.

These products aren't regulated at the federal or state level, but Liou and her colleagues didn't think the political climate was right for them to succeed with a big regulation campaign. Instead, they started working with county governments to set up a Healthy Nail Salons standard, which the county could inspect and certify. (Some similar campaigns in other industries operate without government involvement — a new campaign called the Equitable Food Initiative, for example, certifies farmers directly if they meet certain standards for treating their workers.)

The Healthy Nail Salons standard is, Liou stresses, primarily about the health and safety of workers and customers — not about whether workers are being paid legal wages. But she does say that in order to get certified, a salon has to engage in training that includes telling owners and workers alike about wage and hour regulations. And the collaborative meets often with both owners and workers.

"In many ways, I think, the owners we've seen have actually welcomed" getting information about labor law, Liou says. "[With] a lot of nail salons, it's easy to open, it's often a family business, they don't know all of the different regulations involved in setting up a business." Liou says it was initially awkward to discuss labor issues with both workers and owners in the same room, but the collaborative has figured out a way to do it that both educates owners and gives workers "a safe space to talk about the issues." And in one case, when workers were being exploited, the collaborative was able to refer them to a law clinic — which successfully sued the salon for $750,000 and forced the owner to change labor practices.

Liou and her colleagues are trying to make it as easy as possible for groups in other areas to set up Healthy Nail Salons certification programs. (There's already a campaign in Boston, for example.) But Liou acknowledges that a lot of the interest in the campaign has come from customers who are trying to protect their own health, or the health of their families.

Could customers really care enough to make a Healthy Nail Salons–style model work for labor rights? Pfeffer isn't sure. She talks about a local TV segment she shows in one of her classes, where a station uncovered "pretty gross labor trafficking" at a Chinese restaurant. The anchor interviewed one of the restaurant's customers, "and they were like, 'So what are you going to do? Are you going to change the way you visit restaurants, or what you learn about the places you go?' And the customer said, 'No, I'm not going to stop coming here, the food is really good!'"

"We can't just expect people to be conscious consumers just because they have goodwill, I think," Pfeffer continues. "There are a lot of competing demands for people's decision making."

Still, she says, doing something like the Healthy Nail Salons campaign for labor "is an excellent model, and I think it's good to try. The worst thing we can do is what we've been doing all this time, which is nothing."

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