Sometimes even when we have the best intentions we’re contributing to a horrible situation. Take, for instance, the last time you had a bad day and thought the easy — cheap! — way to help it would be a manicure on the way home. Or that first day of hot weather when you realized your feet had suffered the worst during the endless winter. Or that time you wanted to hang with your girlfriend without cocktails — what could be better bonding than time spent next to each other in the pedicure chair?
All good intentions, but based on evidence unearthed in a two-part series that ran last week in The New York Times, also contributing to a major problem. The piece explained the horrors that are called work-life for the women who are employed at a huge number of nail salons. The atrocities for these often undocumented employees — meaning they have little legal recourse — include having to pay the salon owner hundreds of dollars when they first start working and then going unpaid for weeks or months in the name of “training”; verbal — and at times, physical — abuse; earning $1.50 per hour or even as little as $10 a day; and increased risk of miscarriage, certain types of cancer and other health issues.
The nail salon plays an uncomfortable role in the intersection of class, consumer and beauty. It is affordable enough if you know where to go that most women can afford it — an easy “pamper yourself” escape that takes less than an hour. But when you think about who is doing the pampering — a woman, usually of color, who is literally sitting at your feet and cutting off dead skin and pushing back cuticles; or sitting at a table breathing in fumes as she paints the trendiest shade onto your fingertips — it’s not as fun when you consider what else is going on.
Yet in an industry that we didn’t know was full of corruption, there is help on the horizon. After the Times published its piece, New York state governor Cuomo ordered emergency measures to protect nail salon workers. Now, workers must wear face masks and gloves. The salons have to institute other safety measures as well, and in addition must list all of the state-mandated rules — in six languages — clearly on a wall in the salon. If they fail to live up to these rules, they will be shut down.
Here is where the rest of us can come in. If we want to proclaim ourselves defenders of women or if we want to think we are trying to uplift the lives of people of color — and, quite simply, if we just don’t want to be wrong — we can take a few moments before we breeze into the cheapest salon for a cut-rate mani because we feel like it. We can think about the workers’ rights that are possibly being violated and remember this line from the Times: “You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen.”
We can see if the rules are listed. Or if we are not in New York state, we can see if the workers are wearing masks and gloves. We can take our business to places that appear to have good business practices. Call it being a beauty activist — or just call it being a good person.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)