"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Manicures are a Feminist Issue

And not just because of beauty standards.

The New York Times is reporting on problems for workers in the nail salon industry. Problems related to long hours, low wages, and health concerns from exposure to harmful chemicals.

"Owners often force employees to work 60 hours a week while failing to pay overtime or allow lunch breaks. And lower manicure prices mean lower tips for workers who spend their days cutting cuticles and painting on polish."

"In a 2004 survey of salon employees in New York City, 37 percent said they often or sometimes had skin problems, 37 percent said they suffered from eye irritation, 57 percent from allergies, 66 percent from neck or back discomfort and 18 percent from asthma."
It's not new information that the salon industry, which employs women in far greater numbers than men, has a dangerous side that is hardly ever discussed, and often unknown to workers in the business.  (Thinking Girl has a great post about this from a while back.  I'll find the think to it specifically when I'm not hampered by a firewall.) 
"The intensity of exposure for salon workers is 1,200 times what it would be for the average American," said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect public health and the environment. "Immigrant women often don't understand the safety information."
Various environmental organizations (including the EPA) and workers associations are getting involved in trying to educate salon owners, workers, and communities to improve wages and working conditions, and the article cites several pending lawsuits that may hopefully bring about some change, but for an industry that involves so many struggling women, many of whom have the added burden of being immigrants who speak little English, it will take lots and lots of work to make things better.
 "More than 80 percent of the salons in the New York-New Jersey area are Korean-owned, according to industry experts. In California, by contrast, an estimated three-fourths of salon owners and workers are Vietnamese. The Vietnamese community there has been far more outspoken about safety problems than the Korean community has been in New York.

Ms. Lee, the salon owner on Long Island, said many Koreans went into the business because entry costs are low, with entrepreneurs able to open salons for $50,000 to $100,000. Asian immigrants, whether Koreans two decades ago or Chinese today, often become manicurists because the job requires little English and only a few weeks of training."

I've never had a manicure in my life and don't really plan to start getting them anytime soon, but I'm still left wondering what consumers could do to help bring about change.  Would the industry improve for workers if customers were more aware? If there was a higher demand for salons with manicurists who make a living wage?  Or would that only privilege the salons that are able to afford to charge higher prices and hurt the women who work for less pay?  I'm also wondering if that many chemicals (or ones that harmful) are really necessary to the grooming of nails.  Wouldn't it be better for all involved if the companies that make these products were held to a higher standard of safety and somehow forced to develop safer ones?  Thoughts?