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Behind Every Fortune Lies Nail Polish

I woke up this morning to the news that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced increased employment law regulation and enforcement in response to last week’s blockbuster New York Times investigation of nail salons, effective immediately. Workers will be required to wear gloves and masks to prevent the spread of skin diseases and protect themselves from the sometimes toxic chemicals they are handling. Salon owners will need to put up signsin languages including Korean, Chinese, Spanishexplaining that workers are entitled to receive wages and keep their tips.

This is all wonderfuland nowhere near enough. New York will almost certainly need to add an enforcement component, including increased inspections. Many of the women who quietly toil over the delicate fingers of their native-born American counterparts are undocumented to boot, and unlikely to come forward to press a claim to their rights, even if a prominently placed poster with a phone number says they may.

Can we now begin to talk candidly about what else is going on behind the news?

A few years back I lived in Westchester County, the wealthy suburban belt north of the city. My small town had, roughly, one nail salon for every 2,500 residentsand when I say residents I am including the children. It was obvious to everyone that at least one of the salons must have had another source of income other than manicures and eyebrow waxing. Sure enough, one day in 2007 the local police came calling. “Hastings Police Shutter Sex for Sale Nail Salon” read the headline in The Journal News.

This, I subsequently learned, was not an unusual bust. A search of the Journal News archives finds a number of other such headlines and establishments. New City Spa? Yup. Ya Ya’s Nail and Spa? Them too. There is even one salon where a rater mentioned it negatively on a business’ Yelp page: an unhappy customer seeking a pedicure complained of seeing a man exiting the back of the establishment while he was kept waiting in the front for a simplenot to mention legalpedicure. And, yes, the New York Times likely knows about this. They were covering it as far back as 2002, noting that on suburban Long Island, “Most of the Asian brothels assume fronts like nail salons or legitimate spas.”

This does not mean most nail salons are brothels, of course. But when they are, it’s likely that this prostitution involves human traffickingthat is, the women are compelled or otherwise threatened. And, no, it’s not just New York City. NAILS Magazine, the trade publication covering the industry, has written about the issue at length. “Is the Salon Her Cell?” reads one headline. Boston’s WGBH has also grappled with the issue, claiming in 2010 that in some salons, the women did nails by day and were forced into prostitution at night even in “affluent communities.” And, again, this is almost entirely consisting of undocumented women who are often lured to the states under false pretenses, scared, abused, victimized and unable to come forward on their own.

So, please, don’t think we can solve the manicure mess only by improving the working conditions of the women performing the beauty services. We can, we should, and let’s hope we will. It’s a good start, but there is more going on. It’s hard to avoid the guilty suspicion that corruption in the cosmetics trade looks pretty bad from the perspective of the workers, but otherwise, well, it’s a part of America’s entrepreneurial cultural firmament, a fantasy field for female Horatio Algers. “The best way to actually help people in these communities is to help them help themselves,” libertarian magazine Reason opined last week, begging the government to stay out of the way. Yes, you are an undocumented beauty worker, but one day you can own the place! Besides, you can always quit. But, no, actually, many of the workers, victims of human trafficking, can’t.

Go and read the story in the Times, if you haven’t yet, this is important! But we’ve not even scratched the surface.