Op-ed: The price of cheap labor

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, May 13, 2015 4:15pm
  • Opinion

Manicures and pedicures aren’t usually news or fodder for commentary, but a blockbuster report in The New York Times has made them a compelling issue.

Under the headline “The Price of Nice Nails,” the story cataloged the abusive treatment of workers in New York City’s ubiquitous nail salons. The story generated an enormous reaction; it highlighted the poignant juxtaposition of affluent women enjoying what once would have been a luxury, thanks to poor, exploited women with no other options.

It is a tableau that doesn’t feel very American or very modern. We thought we had put the age of sweatshops behind us, but we hadn’t. It turns out that sweatshops are where New York City women go to get their mani-pedis.

The Times story is, in part, about the ugly underbelly of immigration. The salons are what an industry that subsists on substantial illegal labor looks like.

Census Bureau numbers say that 59 percent of personal-appearance workers are foreign-born, according to Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. By Camarota’s estimate, about a quarter of those foreign workers are illegal, and judging by the Times report, the number is higher in New York City.

“Almost all of the workers interviewed by The Times,” the report noted, “had limited English; many are in the country illegally. The combination leaves them vulnerable.”

Manicurists usually pay a fee of $100 or $200 to begin working at a salon, and then work without pay for weeks or months, before finally getting wages — of perhaps less than $3 an hour, supplemented by tips. That’s assuming that the workers are allowed to get either the wages or the tips without them being skimmed or withheld.

The report tells the story of women living in overcrowded apartments, without time to care for their children.

Their stories are heart-wrenching, if drearily predictable. These are women who often don’t know the language, don’t have any social support, have very few skills in an economy that increasingly demands them, and have little ability to complain about their working conditions, or anything else. What does anyone think is going to happen to them?

The overwhelmingly Korean owners of the salons particularly exploit the Hispanic workers. “Some bosses,” according to the Times, “deliberately prey on the desperation of Hispanic manicurists, who are often drowning under large debts owed to ‘coyotes’ who smuggled them across the border, workers and advocates say.”

When politicians discuss immigration, it is usually in highflying terms. Jeb Bush says that “immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.” Politicians always talk of importing the best and the brightest from abroad. But New York City’s salons capture the tawdry reality of illegal immigration, which creates islands of lawlessness where people can be mistreated with little consequence.

There is an economic upside to this dispensation, no doubt. There has been booming growth in nail salons in New York City during the past 15 years, and prices haven’t really changed since the 1990s, according to the Times. This is a boon to women who want an affordable reverse French manicure. In this case, and in many others, illegal immigration is a subsidy for the upper-middle class that can enjoy cheaper services than it would if the country had a strictly legal labor market and lower levels of overall immigration.

No one wants to hear it, though. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggested that the effect on wages of American workers should be the first concern in considering levels of immigration, the political class recoiled in horror. Surely, one reason that salons can pay so poorly is that the supply of illegal workers is so plentiful. And this supply of labor must, at least at the margins, crowd out workers already here who might consider working in salons if pay and conditions were better.

The New York Times exposed the price of nice nails — and of cheap labor.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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