By which I mean "The Price of Nice Nails," by Sarah Maslin Nir (with assistance from a small army). It's getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. There's a Part 2, mainly on the health hazards of working as a manicurist, and there's now a sidebar also by Maslin Nir, "3 Ways to Be a Socially Conscious Nail Consumer," because the Times is not averse to suggesting that you, the reader, whether you get salon manicures or not, want to feel superior to the unidentified customer in the story who threw a fit after one of the workers profiled got nail polish remover on her Prada shoe. (One way to be a conscious nail consumer, social or not: goddamn, y'all, don't wear your expensive shoes out to get pedicures.)
Way #1 is "Interview your manicurist," which raised my eyebrow, since it becomes clear in the article that many of the immigrants working for sub-minimal wages are at a significant disadvantage due to their lack of English. Moreover, it implies a level of trust between worker and customer that is simply not there under the best of circumstances. If you don't have a way to lessen your manicurist's dependency on his or her job in a big hurry, you don't have the ability -- or the right, I'd add -- to force that trust.
Another common reaction is "Tip more," but Maslin Nir pushes back against that one, pointing out that according to her team's findings, the tips won't make their way back to the workers anyway. Jordan Weissmann elaborates over at Slate, and adds that this analysis probably applies to immigrants working in other super-cheap consumer markets -- Chinese food deliveries, for example. (Not directly related, but do check out Emily Guendelsberger's dissection of working as an Uber driver for the Philadelphia City Paper, which also came out yesterday.)
Weissmann thinks the better long-term conscience balm is to press for better labor law enforecement. I'd add that there are already going to be organizations on the ground that know better than the average manicure recipient does what these exploited workers want and need. (To my surprise, it appears Maslin Nir and her team weren't in touch with such organizations when recruiting interviewees.) For example, Nicole Hallett, the Yale Law professor quoted in both the article and the sidebar, works with Yale Law School's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, which in turn works with Latino Justice. The Asian Law Caucus has a section on workers' rights. And so on.
A couple more related thoughts:
- I personally am not familiar with what academic literature may exist on how immigrant entrepreneurs treat non-co-ethnic workers. One of my advisers did her dissertation research on undocumented workers in LA's Koreatown and would know more about this than I would.
- Relatedly: reading the article, there were places where I was wincing and wondering how much force the stereotype of Offhandedly Racist, Money-Obsessed Korean Store Owner has in New York City. Korean store owner/black clientele tension was a topic of a fair bit of research in the late 1990s (example, from Kyeyoung Park, who writes frequently on Korean-American entrepreneurship) but I wouldn't call the larger perceptions of Korean-American capitalists nuanced, exactly.
- Interestingly, in the second piece there's actually more discussion of Vietnamese nail salon owners, who are more prevalent nationally, and the division between owner and worker is less pronounced: the implication being that owners and workers alike face health hazards, though the workers have less power to take preventative steps. (See also this piece from KPCC, in Southern California, last year, which frames the health-hazard issue in terms of Vietnamese-Americans of different class levels working proactively.)
- Relatedly relatedly: I haven't read this, but I want to now.