The Tip of the Iceberg: Nail Salon Trafficking, Exploitation, Deregulation, and General Idiocy

It seems everyone is talking about the New York Times’ investigation into the exploitation of immigrant manicurists, including me. Here’s the link to the HuffPost Live panel I participated in this morning.

Since NYT ran the piece and the second part of the investigation regarding the safety of the chemicals we use, Cuomo ordered emergency measures to protect manicurists. Unfortunately, the issues raised in the initial investigation are only a small subset of a much larger list of issues that plague the industry–and the problems are not exclusive to New York, nail salons, or even the beauty industry.

The issues, as I see them, are as follows:

Human trafficking. It’s unfortunate that these issues don’t garner more media attention, but as someone who is actively involved in this industry and has been for the past fifteen years, I do hear about these cases pretty often. Nail salons are used as cover businesses to hide and legitimize income from “massage parlor” prostitution businesses. An investigator with a state human trafficking department told me, “For every one parlor that goes up, six nail salons are required to filter the cash through.” Yes, this does happen. As far as I’m concerned, the scale of it is irrelevant, but up until Craigslist banned the advertising of sensual massage and other prostitution, the breadth of the problem was pretty evident.

If agencies are raiding salons under the guise of a prostitution sting and are finding that other laws are being broken, they’re tasked with enforcing those laws. I won’t make any statement about immigration reform or criticize those laws which I find to be ridiculous, inefficient, or unreasonable, but I will say that any complaints we have with existing legislation will need to be brought to the attention of our local lawmakers. Laws and regulations are birthed out of need. Should we find that those laws are no longer suitable, relevant, or beneficial, we need to demand that they be revised or eliminated. We shouldn’t condemn law enforcement agencies for doing their jobs. Which brings me to the next problem…

Lack of enforcement. In situations like these, the response is generally to “throw legislation at it until it’s fixed,” but if the existing laws and regulations were properly enforced, there would be little need for broader legislation. What is the point of writing and passing these laws if nobody is going to be held accountable for ensuring that they’re being enforced? (Spoiler alert: there isn’t one.) These issues shouldn’t require a national spotlight before they’re made a priority. The laws are written. Enforce them and negate the need for public outcry.

Cultural pride. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, staff editor at made a good point. Can’t exploited workers decide for themselves what is and isn’t acceptable? I completely agree, and I can’t even attempt to untangle the psychology of a person who allows themselves to be victimized, but my experience has shown that the Korean and Vietnamese communities, in particular, consider their exceptional work ethic a source of great pride. To report, sue, or otherwise seek retribution against an employer would be considered disgraceful and disrespectful. It’s well known in the industry that Korean and Vietnamese immigrants place tremendous value on the virtues of loyalty and hard work. When combined with their illegal status, these traits make them very easy to victimize and manipulate. In more severe cases, they become easy targets for trafficking and modern slavery. Politics and cultural pride aside, I think we can all agree that basic human rights should prevail and that these people deserve an advocate and these crimes against them must be punished–even if they’re unwilling or unable to report them for whatever reason.

Failure to report. As I said in the discussion, even Americans get victimized. What’s stopping them from leaving and finding another job like any rational person would? After all, they are legal citizens and have nothing to fear, right? We even have systems in place for them to seek reimbursement and to have their employers held accountable for their actions!

I spend a good deal of time educating beauty professionals about their rights and helping them on an individual level, throughout the process of reporting their exploitative employers, but more often than not, after reading a ten page block of text sent by an exploited employee and taking the time to compose a response that includes links to statutes, links to their local authorities, and information on how to initiate the process, the response I receive is, “I don’t want to because…” or “I can’t because…”

Unfortunately, not many professionals are in a position to abandon or decline exploitative employment arrangements. Because these exploitative labor practices are still pretty universal, there aren’t many alternatives to choose from. For example, you would have a very hard time finding a salon that guarantees the prevailing minimum wage. Most operate on a “commission-only” basis that is circumstantially legal at best. Also, unpaid internships are not legal, and are frequently abused, but because students in beauty schools are not taught the intricacies of the FLSA and other legislation designed to protect workers, they don’t know any better. Because these practices are so common, they are often considered “customary,” and the overwhelming majority of beauty workers don’t even realize that they’re being exploited. Wages are stolen through arbitrary fees and tip theft, misclassification is the norm, and employees are expected to endure it on the basis of, “So has it been, so shall it continue to be.”

Let’s make this clear: exploitation, regardless of how rampant it is in our professional community, is a crime. It is illegal. It is punishable. “Well, my employees accept it,” and “Everyone else does it” are not valid defenses. Courts do not distinguish between criminals with good intentions, criminals with bad intentions, and people who become criminals due to their own ignorance of the law.

I have long said that if you continue to accept these practices you only have yourself to blame since, without dissent and refusal, nothing will change. I don’t know about other industries as I have made my career in this one exclusively, but from my perspective the conservative “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” theory fails beauty workers in a substantial way. Most employees in our industry do not have the bargaining power to command higher wages or fair labor practices. Many salon owners have no understanding of basic business economics, so they don’t know how to balance their finances in a way that enables them to properly compensate their workers. American employees, when subjected to typical industry employment abuses, are far more likely to quit and find another job. This cycle repeats until the employee gives up entirely.

While I cannot find the actual statistics on this right now, I’ve been told repeatedly by colleagues that an overwhelming majority of licensees leave the industry within the first five years of being licensed. I’m contacting the PBA to see if they have any real numbers on this, but I don’t need to see figures to know this is true. I am one of two people in my graduating class who still work in this industry. The other 28 are no longer employed in the beauty industry in any capacity (the other one works as an instructor at the school we graduated from–which his father owns).

In my ten years of experience as a salon manager and owner, it was not at all uncommon to see a long list of past positions on an applicant’s resume with durations of one month to two years. Veteran professionals understand that this type of turnover is typical in an industry where income isn’t guaranteed, salon owners typically aren’t business savvy, and wages are frequently stolen.

Is more legislation the answer when current legislation isn’t being enforced? I’ll never understand a world in which rational human beings require written legislation and threat of enforcement to act ethically, but that appears to be the state of things. The employers profiting at their employees’ expense are certainly not going to be making any changes on their own.

On charging fees for training: While charging employees an “entry fee” to gain employment is ridiculous, I do believe that it is perfectly acceptable for a salon owner to charge an employee to learn advanced, marketable technical skills, provided that the training is offered as an elective. The key words here are “advanced,” “elective,” and “marketable.” These skills are techniques that cosmetology schools do not teach, that can give a professional a competitive advantage in any salon they choose to work in. In our industry, these skills would include lash extensions, 3D nail art, hair extensions, and other techniques an average technician would normally have to learn from an independent educator for a fee. The employee should not be forced to participate in this training. If the owner wants to require the employee to be trained in advanced services, they need to bear the burden of that training expense and accept the risks associated with providing training without payment.

On the issue of deregulation: Outsiders often criticize the regulatory measures states impose on our profession, but it’s important for beauty professionals to realize that their opinions are often a direct result of their lack of education regarding the consequences of unlicensed activity. The burden falls to you to ensure that you’re communicating the importance of these standards and licensing requirements.

Without first-hand knowledge, the general public has no idea how much damage an unlicensed professional can do, but those of us who live and breathe this industry see it every single day. Salons and professionals who do not comply with sanitation and licensing requirements are significant public health menaces.

Outside commentators often claim that these regulations and our licenses are ridiculous barriers to entry, designed by a greedy government or a secret shadow agency of schools only interested in maintaining their market relevance, but remember that these outsiders often form their opinions under the false belief that all we do is “paint fingernails.” In reality, there is far more to the profession than that. Proper training is required to protect the public and the technicians who serve them. These standards and regulations were created for a reason, and those reasons are just as relevant now as they were when they were written. Anyone who argues otherwise is severely deficient in industry experience. Provide it.

On “tipping” as a solution: In a follow-up piece NYT published on the 8th, where reader comments were discussed, Sunzari of New York makes a fantastic point: “I’m a little perturbed by those suggesting the alleged abuses, particularly low wages, should be offset by customers tipping generously. How does shifting the burden to consumers help the problem?”

It doesn’t. Nor does tipping more, as there is absolutely no guarantee that the employee is receiving that tip.

Using higher prices as a gauge to determine whether or not a salon is operating legitimately is also invalid. What do you think the first thing salon owners hoping to net “socially-conscious” consumers are going to do to assure those consumers that they’re paying their staff in accordance with the law? Yeah. They’re going to raise their prices, continue violating, and pocket the difference.

I discourage accepting tips. Employees should not be financially dependent on the gratitude of others. Arguments have also been made about the custom being discriminatory. Instead, set your prices to appropriately cover your expenses, including payroll, and tell the clients to keep their change.

General idiocy. So, yeah, my mind went completely blank mid-statement during the panel discussion. The idea was there, fully-formed, and ready to go, but evaporated suddenly. I made it halfway through, at least. (Optimism! Hooray!)

What I meant to say before that anxiety-induced cognitive blackout was that the lawyers, investigators, and state/federal representatives I work with are often shocked when they discover how common these issues are within our profession. Because my area of expertise is exclusive to this industry, I have no idea how common these problems are in other industries, but if the headlines (and my email inbox) are to be believed, labor abuses are going on everywhere, from the smallest independent businesses to the largest corporations. Assigning a task force and making a move to curb criminal activity is a great start, but as long as criminals find it profitable to do so, they will find ways to circumvent it. No easy answer exists.

In a follow-up interview, Sarah Maslin Nir said, “There’s no such thing as a cheap luxury.” I preached the same exact thing at the High Road to Education Event in Las Vegas. Jaime and I have repeatedly made the same statement in our published work, in our professional networking groups, to our consulting clients, and at our public speaking events.

Beauty services are non-essential. You can interpret that one of two ways: either they’re worthless and should be provided for free or they’re valuable luxuries and should be priced accordingly. As a beauty professional, I choose the latter of the two. We cannot run our businesses like charities or treat our careers like self-sustaining hobbies. Unfortunately, this is a fact that consumers and salon owners alike have trouble accepting.

I work with salon owners to balance their budgets and establish prices and compensation systems that make financial sense. The basic mathematics are the same that apply to every business–keep overhead as low as possible and keep the process as efficient as possible. Owners are often shocked when I tell them what their prices will need to be to ensure their staff are properly compensated and their overhead is met. It’s anywhere from double to triple what the discount salons charge.

The outrageously low prices you see in discount salons aren’t sustainable, even by cutting corners, so you can safely assume that not only are workers in these establishments being exploited, but the salon owner’s real money is likely being earned elsewhere and the salon itself is serving to facilitate that illegal activity. (Although I’m certain some people may interpret that as a blanket statement, I can assure you that I don’t mean to imply that every discount salon is a front business, just that mathematically, in high-cost metropolitan areas where retail space costs several thousands per month, the numbers rarely add up.)

Market economy defined. No salon owners like hearing this, but we live in a market economy (for the most part–but I refuse to talk about economic politics here, we’re just addressing the principle of market demand and consumer choice). The nature of business is that consumer demand ultimately determines whether or not your profession, service, or product is relevant to their needs. If salons raise prices to the level required to make them valid, law-abiding, profitable establishments, the market will either accept those prices or reject them. If they choose to reject them, our businesses will fail–as they should. The market will have spoken. Consumers vote with dollars. The key to survival is evolution. Find new ways to be relevant and profitable; don’t undercut your workforce and sacrifice quality.

In conclusion: I won’t pretend that I have a solution for the human trafficking or the use of nail salons as front businesses, but there are some very simple, state-level changes that can be made to virtually eliminate the more common forms of labor exploitation that wouldn’t require much on behalf of the states themselves.

  • First, schools could be required to teach modules that warn of common illegal industry practices. Questions regarding these issues can be included on the state board examinations.
  • The IRS guide to Barbering & Cosmetology should be included with every license renewal packet.
  • Everyone who applies for a business license should be required to sign a document stating that they’re aware of their rights and obligations as employers–and that they’re aware of the consequences for failing to comply. You cannot point the finger at an employer for failing to follow your rules if your rules are difficult to access and challenging for an average person to comprehend. No employer deserves to be blindsided.
  • When a complaint is made and an owner is found to have violated the laws they’ve acknowledged understanding of, the response should be immediate and severe.
  • The channels for reporting offenses should be easier to access and navigate.
  • The states should be maintaining their websites and updating them within 24 hours of a legislative change. (I don’t know about other states, but Florida sends me reminders to remit my sales and use tax. I can’t imagine that it would be much more difficult for them to send out email notifications when their expectations of me have changed.)

Will these changes eliminate these problems entirely? Hell no. Will it help? Definitely.

Jaime and I are discussing the possibility of conducting another discussion that will address all aspects of these industry issues, including chemical exposure. I’ll update you on that when we’ve set a date for it.

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Tina Alberino
Tina Alberino
Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and Salon Ownership and Management: A Definitive Guide to the Professional Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.

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  1. I so wish you had been able to say all this on the show today! You were great, but it was so short, you didn’t get a chance. I appreciate all the effort you put in, every day, thank you for being there for us all ;

    • I am very interested.I am not a nail tech,I am an instructor.We have an exploitation problem from schools as well.If I hear another person say,Its just beauty school ,I will go mad.No other students rights are ignored in the way our industry does.State boards are for licensing and sanitation.Leave ethics to school owners? Because why?Can we get something going to improve this or will we continue to agree with society that beauty is somehow not important.At 22,000.00 per student?

  2. Tina, you have been calling this for a long time now. I’m in the process of filling out paperwork NYC dept of labor to investigate my former salon that is a full American salon that pays staff mainly By commission only that adds up to working below NYC min wage and only pays a small wage part of your already underpaid commission on the books. Mine alone of wage underpayment is adding up to $20,000 for 2 yrs and 7 months.
    Do you think all salons are gonna be investigated or just the nail salons?

    • I was trying to mention that during the HuffPost discussion. This isn’t a “nail salon” problem, it’s an ENTIRE INDUSTRY problem. Stylists are screwed in the same ways. So are estheticians. So are massage therapists. We’re ALL getting shafted. Nail salons are a great start, but they aren’t the only ones being victimized.

  3. Tina,
    I have just accepted a position as an educator after ending a hellish, violation rife salon job.
    Have you thought about putting together a packet for educators for students?

    • It’s so funny you commented on this, because I actually was thinking about putting together a free e-book for schools and educators about how to teach their students how to navigate the industry as an employee–basically a much shorter version of my “Know Your Rights” class, along with corresponding handouts for students. When I get around to it, I’ll get the word out here and on social media.

  4. Wow, this post totally blew me away. I just downloaded the IRS guide to Barbering and Cosmetology. I strongly agree that these are topics that cosmetology/service professionals should be aware of. The industry is so much more than just learning the art/ profession of cosmetology. I understand most individuals do not have a desire to learn business, laws, or economics. However, these things are important in molding knowledgeable professionals. I think that cosmetology schools and institutions need to focus on making changes to their curriculums, while still providing a sound quality education. Warning students of the harsh realities of the industry (as Tina had mentioned) is a huge responsibility of cosmetology administrators and instructors.

    • I completely agree. I’ve been saying for years that schools need to make those issues part of their curriculum–and not just beauty schools. The fact that basic employee rights aren’t taught at high schools is a travesty. Not everyone will use calculus after graduation–but every single one of those students will likely work at some point in their lives.

  5. Hey Tina,
    Thank you for sharing those valuable information and stories,
    I am a documentary filmmaker who wanna to make a documentary about nail salon wakers,
    Do u have some suggestions for us?
    This is my email: [email protected]
    I appreciate.

    Let me know if you have any questions.

    Thank you!


    • Hi Xiao! I’d love to help, but unfortunately I’m insanely busy building a new house, managing my kids, and handling my work. I recommend you join some nail technician groups on Facebook and start reaching out to professionals there. The tech community online is spectacular. They’re very tight-knit and extremely helpful. I wish I could be more useful, but I really can’t take on anything else right now. 🙂


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