LAST WEEK The New York Times ran a set of stories that illustrate just how vital investigative journalism is, especially in an era in which savage capitalism seizes upon vulnerable groups-–immigrant women in powerless positions—and exploits them with impunity, knowing that governmental institutions lack the power, authority, or will to intervene. Written by Sarah Maslin Nir, the stories showed us that the outposts of bourgeois femininity—nail salons– located in virtually all commercial areas, have a dark side to them that is often quite hidden, even to the customers: rampant wage theft and health hazards that are everyday realities facing workers.
In a two part series that will likely win a Pulitzer prize (you read it here first!), Nir reports on the ways in which immigrant networks connect salon owners to a nearly endless flow of Chinese, Viet Namese and Latin American women, many of whom lack documentation or English language facility, and who are easily coerced to work long hours, even for no wages at all. Nir reports that “new employees must pay $100 [for being hired], then work unpaid for several weeks, before they are started at $30 or $40,” this for as many as sixty hours, or more. The highest paid worker in Nir’s report was an Ecuadorean women named Nora Cacho, who “earned 50 percent of the price of every manicure or lip wax she did at a Harlem shop that was part of a chain, Envy Nails.” But Cacho still routinely earned “about $200 for each 66-hour workweek — about $3 an hour” –less than half the federal minimum wage. The industry has developed a skill hierarchy, and especially diligent workers might try to climb it. But doing so requires further payment to owners, who often charge $100 –half a week’s wage—to teach such skills as eyebrow waxing and gel sculpting.
Surviving as a manicurist also requires exposure to substances that are banned in many other nations, are known to disrupt women’s reproductive systems, and that expose workers to a sharply elevated risk of lung disease, skin disorders, and breast cancer. Though manicurists are aware of these risks –they share stories among themselves in hushed tones, and older women advise their younger counterparts to pursue other forms of work if they can— but often, they can’t. Lacking money, documents, and English, they continue working at the salons despite knowing that their bodies (and those of their children, if they are live births) may well pay a heavy price. The object of this labor process –the production of beauty— has a rather different (at times, a disfiguring) appearance from the worker’s point of view. One worker, having survived a struggle with breast cancer, tried but failed to conceal a scar that stretched from her collarbone across her torso. Miscarriages are a commonplace among the manicurists. And one woman’s story is especially tragic, as her son’s cognitive and bodily functioning have been stunted in horrible ways, probably due to her exposure to salon chemicals while she was pregnant..
These sad realities raise at least three far-reaching questions: First, they prompt us to interrogate the politics of femininity in an age of consumer capitalism. Second, they provide us with an image of the abject failure of governmental institutions (until they are shamed into action –see below), which seem unable or unwilling to protect vulnerable workers of color. Third, and by implication, they enable us to glimpse the real nature of the unregulated market capitalism –that is, what you get when you foster a capitalism driven by the race to the bottom. This is an eloquent reminder to those who advocate reduced governmental regulation and who worship at the altar of entrepreneurial activity: This is the face of a perfect, unregulated capitalism, its glamorous mask stripped away, however momentarily.