If you've ever received a speedy $10 manicure, there's a good chance that the woman who buffed your nails was paid less than minimum wage, denied overtime, and suffered emotional abuse. At least that's what salon workers and attorneys claim in a spate of lawsuits.
The latest, a nationwide class action suit on behalf of 13 salon workers, alleges that XpresSpa, the largest global network of premium airport salons, is guilty of a host of "systematic" labor law violations, according to the women's attorney, C. K. Lee of Kraselnik & Lee, PLLC. An attorney representing XpresSpa said that she had "no comment" on the lawsuit.
Remarks by the nail salon workers' legal advocates, as well as other lawsuits, depict the industry as the modern equivalent of the Dickensian factory. Among the allegations:
- Nail salons in an affluent areas like New Canaan, Conn., are staffed largely by women bused in from Queens, Brooklyn and New York's Chinatown in the early morning, attorney Lee alleged in an interview. And the salon workers are stuck there, especially in sandal season, until 8 or 9 in the evening.
- Many workers endure 10-hour-plus days without lunch breaks, "or even bathroom breaks," says Luna Ranjit, the executive director of Adhikaar, a social justice nonprofit based in Queens that works with Nepalese-speaking communities.
- Many salons pay their workers less than minimum wage, deny them overtime and improperly categorize them as contractors to deny them benefits. (The average salary is $22,150 a year.)
- The cosmetic industry essentially regulates itself, thanks to laws that haven't been updated since 1938 -- so salons are rife with toxic products that have been linked to reproductive problems and cancer.
The Cost Of A Cheap Manicure
As the nail salon industry exploded over the past few decades, salons engaged in a "race to the bottom," according to Shirley Lin, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, exploiting their immigrant employees to keep prices low.
Now these women workers are fighting back.
Last month, a judge ordered a chain of Long Island nail salons to pay $250,000 to six of their former employees, all Chinese immigrant women, for unpaid wages and overtime. In February, Perma Sherpa, a Nepali-immigrant nail salon worker who was denied overtime but forced to buy her own tools, endure ethnic insults and eat in the salon's waxing room -- when she was allowed to eat at all -- settled with her former employer for an undisclosed amount.
Last year, two Brooklyn salons, Nail Plus and Cute Nail, were both hit with lawsuits, as was Babi Nail in Long Island. The year before, two women sued Bonnie's Nail and Spa on New York's Upper West Side, another worker sued Prisca Nail in Queens, and a fourth sued Nail Niobe on Park Avenue. And the year before that, lawsuits were dished out to Melaje Nail Salon on Long Island, New Happy J&J Salon in Brooklyn, Ji Ji Nails in New Jersey, and the Renaissance Nail chain in Darien and New Canaan, Conn.
And then there was the woman who started it all: Susan Kim, a Korean-American who worked at an Upper East Side nail salon for 16 years. In 2007 a judge awarded Kim $182,000 for unpaid overtime wages, lost earnings, and pain and suffering, and in doing so indirectly gave manicurists across the tri-state area a new sense of their own rights.
Asian immigrant and women's advocacy groups have taken up the cause. Adhikaar is now organizing Nepali nail salon workers, reports the Daily News, training them to survey their peers in the field, and pushing to get manicurist licensing exams offered in Nepalese, so that the workers have greater protections.
An Inspiring Immigrant Story
The nail salon industry has, in many ways, been an inspiring story of immigrant entrepreneurship. In the 1970s, manicures were a luxury of the New York elite, like hot stone massages or seaweed facials. Today, without an appointment, you can walk into one of the nail salons that dot most retail blocks in the city, and get your nails buffed for $9. It's a niche industry built largely by Southeast Asian immigrant women, mostly Korean on the East Coast, and Vietnamese on the West.
The nail salon industry grew by over 370 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to Nails magazine, a trade publication. Approximately 95 percent of the country's 380,000 nail technicians are women, and 59 percent are women of color.
Limited English skills mean these women often have few other opportunities to work. It can also make it much harder for them to speak out against abuse, or even realize that what they're suffering is illegal.
"They just don't know," says Lee. "They come from a culture, society, where people are supposed to work super-long hours, and don't get paid overtime."
For decades they suffered quietly, their advocates say, even as many felt that their working conditions were making them sick. A survey of 71 salon workers in Boston, published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, found that 21 percent had some kind of respiratory issue. Many nail salons aren't properly ventilated, and several salon workers claim that they've suffered miscarriages from working in the fumes.
A Department of Toxic Substances Control report published Tuesday found that a majority of nail products that claimed to be free of toxic chemicals actually contained them.
The employers abusing these salon workers don't fit the capitalist stereotype of a white, mustached male, however; They're often immigrant women themselves -- though more established -- and desperately trying to keep their businesses afloat. Sometimes the employers and employees belong to the same family.
But Asian immigrant women are getting wise to their rights, and joining the long list of immigrant groups in history who fought and won rights for workers. Over the last few decades, they made beauty treatments cheap. Now, it seems, they're making them political.
And for the women who get weekly manicures, Lee has one piece of advice: "Remember to tip."
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