Journalism Exposed Nail Workers’ Plight


On May 11, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, ordered emergency measures to protect the people working in New York’s nail salon industry. On May 15, Mayor de Blasio announced that the city, too, would take action against the conditions facing the workers in this industry. The actions came as a result of two investigative articles by Sarah Maslin Nir which appeared in the New York Times. The research for these two articles took 13 months, plus the time required for photography. Further, the Times published the article not only in English but also in Korean, Chinese and Spanish. This may give the workers in the nail industry an opportunity to learn about the conditions they work under, since they may be so isolated that they don’t understand that they’re being exploited. This required the additional services of six translators.

Residents of New York City may be more aware of the nail salon industry than others because New York City has more nail salons than any other metropolitan area in the country. The Times reports that San Francisco and Los Angeles, which come closest, have roughly half the number of nail salons on a per capita basis. Even so, the nail salons fade into the background, rather like the “forgotten man” of the Great Depression. There are an estimated 2,000 nail salons in New York, most of them in the affluent boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but extending out into the suburbs on Long Island and New Jersey.

In spite of the number of salons, relatively little attention has been paid to them. One of the things that seems to have gained the attention of journalists is the fact that prices for a manicure or pedicure haven’t increased in a decade. In some industries, costs can be held down by increases in productivity through technology. but in service industries this doesn’t apply. The time and effort required to give a manicure are unchanged, while other costs of doing business, rents and utilities, have largely kept pace with inflation. The price of the service has been held constant by exploitation of the workers, and the exploitation has been allowed because, until now, nobody really noticed. Even though the workers in other low wage industries such as fast foods have been able to join together to demand a higher minimum wage with some degree of success, the workers in nail salons are particularly vulnerable. Most are poorly proficient in English, many are likely to be undocumented, and they have no unions. The result is that they work for below minimum wage, often paying the salon owner for the opportunity to work, are subjected to physical and emotional abuse, and exposed to toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, abnormal fetal development and miscarriages. According to Ms. Nir “A number of studies have also found that cosmetologists — a group that includes manicurists, as well as hairdressers and makeup artists — have elevated rates of death from Hodgkin’s disease, of low birth-weight babies and of multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.”

Part of the lesson of the nail salons is the continued exploitation of workers who lack government support or the means to organize, but an equal part is the continued relevance of journalism, with a particular accent on long form journalism – defined as any report that runs over 2,000 words. USA Today, which pioneered short attention span journalism, is working at keeping the word count down and making the newspaper more like a web site., which is, after all, a web site, offers estimates of how long it will take to read a report. Many of them require only a minute, although they do provide links for those who want more depth. According to Columbia Journalism Review, Ms. Nir learned about the conditions in the nail salons largely by chance, when she decided to treat herself to a pedicure. She evidently had a pedicurist who was fluent in English and could describe her working conditions. Ms. Nir worked for the Times, one of the few papers left that would invest so extensively in this story, and that can bring this information to the Governor and Mayor and spur them to immediate action. Without these coincidences the exploitation and abuse would continue.

Donald Rumsfeld said it: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” And as traditional journalism declines, we have less and less chance of ever finding out.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2015

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652