The nail salon crisis is not about your middle class guilt

Last week, the New York Times had an amazing and devastating expose of exactly how much exploitation is going on in New York City nail salons, where desperate women are often forced to work for months at a time for no pay at all and, even when they do get paid, it's a pittance. Since getting manicures and pedicures is nearly universal amongst middle class women in NYC, this was like a shockwave of guilt and anger and outrage, as it should have been. But I have to register a complaint about how this is playing out. A sample:


Here’s How to Give Yourself an At-Home, Guilt-Free Manicure & Pedicure

Where to Get an Ethical Manicure: The NYC Salons You Can Trust

The New Ethical Rules for Getting a Manicure

5 Tips to make sure your manicure is ethical

Phew! As long as middle class guilt is assuaged, then problem solved, right? Sure, immigrant women will continue to be exploited and abused, but you won't feel bad about being complicit and that's all that matters, right?

I don't mean to pick on people,I really don't. These huge labor and immigration issues can feel overwhelming and I get that people want to know what part, however small, they can play. But that leads to this unfortunate tendency to frame these issues around middle class complicity, as if that were the main problem and not just a sideshow. The problem with that is that these sort of individualized rituals of self-sacrifice in the name of purity do almost nothing to actually improve the lives of marginalized or exploited people. In some cases, it might make it worse---in this case, for instance, the end result will be that a smaller proportion of customers in nail salons will be good tippers who are nice to the workers. Great.

To be fair, some writers cleverly used the "how to assuage your guilt" click bait headlines to compel people to take real action, such as calling the authorities when they discover a salon is breaking labor laws or to surreptitiously distribute materials informing workers of their rights in their native language. These are still small actions, but they are actions that might actually help a real person who actually needs help, and that's not nothing. But most of what I saw out there was focused on how you personally can feel better about yourself. That's not helpful to people who actually need help.

The real solutions to this problem are hard: Government regulation, immigration reform, and labor organizing. Michelle Chen of the Nation has a good round-up of some actually helpful efforts in this regard. And while much of what's going on it out of your hands, individual consumer, there is one huge thing you can do:

Call your representatives. This is a state and local issue. In New York, Gov. Cuomo has started emergency measures to help prevent some of the worst abusesPublic Advocate Letitia James is demanding that the city have more regulating authority. There are also efforts to create a "certification" program to help customers choose to frequent salons with better labor practices. Call your representative and support these efforts. Ask for more.

It's not sexy, but this is something that will actually work. And it will work a lot better than you doing an at-home manicure.