Forgo those Fancy Nails

I’ve always admired the women pastors and choir directors with the fancy nails. They certainly give a finished look, especially when you use your hands while you talk. At my church, many women, even those on modest incomes, visit a nail salon regularly. I was never one of them. I’ve always had the cracking cuticles and used the “teeth method” for addressing nail tears. 

Party, I didn’t have time to sit around and have someone do my nails. Partly, I was too cheap. But mostly, there was something about the nail salon scene that worried me – both the noxious smells and my gut-instinct that workers weren’t paid fairly.

I was right to be worried. Sarah Maslin Nir just published two articles in the New York Times on nail salon workers (The Price of Nice Nails – May 7, 2015 and Behind Perfect Nails, Poisoned Salon Workers – May 11, 2015) that should be a wake-up call to all of us desiring lovely nails. 

The first article focused on wages and living conditions in New York City. In one of the most expensive cities in the nation, most nail salon workers are paid below minimum wage. Many have to pay a “fee” to the employer to get started, only receive tips for the first few months of work, and are routinely cheated of overtime wages or illegally fined for minor infractions. Large numbers of women bunk together in small apartments jammed with bunk beds and mattresses. The situations described sound much like human trafficking. 

Although the article suspects that conditions are worse for nail salon workers in New York City, because prices for a manicure are so low compared to other cities, given my experience with wage theft in many other sectors, I bet there are similar situations in cities and towns across the nation. 

The second article focuses on health risks. Nail polish and related nail products contain lots of dangerous chemicals. The fumes not only smell awful, but the chemicals are clearly harming workers. Nail salon workers interviewed for the story told about miscarriages and birth defects in their children. Advocates who’ve worked with nail salon workers in multiple cities say the products cause breathing problems and cancers. There are very few health and safety guidelines or protections for these vulnerable workers. 

In large tribute to the excellent research in the articles, New York Governor Cuomo issued emergency orders to protect nail salon workers.

Before these articles came out, I was heading to Dhaka on a delegation to be there for the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the disaster in which the building owner knowingly pushed workers to continue working in an unsafe building that on April 24, 2013 collapsed killing 1138 workers and injuring another 2500. Given Dhaka’s hot temperatures I packed sandals. The day before I left, I decided to have a pedicure, my first ever, since my toes would peek out of my sandals. While at the salon I had my nails done too – perhaps the third manicure of my life. 

Although my toes looked lovely and my nails did too until they started chipping and I had no polish remover, I regret having supported the nail salon industry. Like the Rana Plaza owner, nail salon owners know they are cheating workers and endangering their health. I’d had a bad feeling about nail salons, but gone there anyway. Beauty before justice. 

No more. Until nail salon workers are protected, women of faith and good will ought to forego the fancy nails. I certainly will.