Slaves to Beauty

by Steven Vallas  Originally posted at Work In Progress (here). The piece is cross-posted with permission.
Credit: The New York Times
Credit: The New York Times

LAST WEEK The New York Times ran a set of stories that illustrate just how vital investigative journalism is, especially in an era in which savage capitalism seizes upon vulnerable groups-–immigrant women in powerless positions—and exploits them with impunity, knowing that governmental institutions lack the power, authority, or will to intervene. Written by Sarah Maslin Nir, the stories showed us that the outposts of bourgeois femininity—nail salons–we see in virtually all in commercial areas, have a dark side to them that is often quite hidden, even to the customers: rampant the wage theft and health hazards that are common practices within nail salons.

In a two part series that will likely win a Pulitzer prize (you read it here first!), Nir reports on the ways in which immigrant networks connect salon owners to a nearly endless flow of Asia and Latin American women, many of whom lack documentation or English language facility, and who are easily coerced to work long hours, even for no wages at all. Nir reports that “new employees must pay $100 [for being hired], then work unpaid for several weeks, before they are started at $30 or $40,” this for as many as sixty hours, or more. The highest paid worker in Nir’s report was an Ecuadorean women named Nora Cacho, who “earned 50 percent of the price of every manicure or lip wax she did at a Harlem shop that was part of a chain, Envy Nails.” But Cacho still routinely earned “about $200 for each 66-hour workweek — about $3 an hour” –less than half the federal minimum wage. The industry has developed a skill hierarchy, and especially diligent workers might try to climb it. But doing so requires further payment to owners, who often charge $100 –half a week’s wage—to teach such skills as eyebrow waxing and gel sculpting.

Surviving as a manicurist also requires exposure to substances that are banned in many other nations, are known to disrupt women’s reproductive systems, and that expose workers to a sharply elevated risk of lung disease, skin disorders, and breast cancer. Though manicurists are aware of these risks –they share stories among themselves in hushed tones, and older women advise their younger counterparts to pursue other forms of work if they can— but often, they can’t. Lacking money, documents, and English, they continue working at the salons despite knowing that their bodies (and those of their children, if they are live births) may well pay a heavy price. The object of this labor process –the production of beauty— has a rather different (at times, a disfiguring) appearance from the worker’s point of view. One worker, having survived a struggle with breast cancer, tried but failed to conceal a scar that stretched from her collarbone across her torso. Miscarriages are a commonplace among the manicurists. And one woman’s story is especially tragic, as her son’s cognitive and bodily functioning have been stunted in horrible ways, probably due to her exposure to salon chemicals while she was pregnant..

These sad realities raise at least three far-reaching questions: First, they prompt us to interrogate the politics of femininity in an age of consumer capitalism. Second, they provide us with an image of the abject failure of governmental institutions (until they are shamed into action –see below), which seem unable or unwilling to protect vulnerable workers of color. Third, and by implication, they enable us to glimpse the real nature of the unregulated market capitalism –that is, what you get when you foster a capitalism driven by the race to the bottom. This is an eloquent reminder to those who advocate reduced governmental regulation and who worship at the altar of entrepreneurial activity: This is the face of a perfect, unregulated capitalism, its glamorous mask stripped away, however momentarily.

Let me begin with the politics of femininity. One of the features of consumer capitalism is that it often relies on an unofficial currency minted in the coin of sex, glamor, fashion, and beauty. The resilience of capitalism, let us agree, is at least partly due to its near-infinite capacity to invoke images of feminine beauty, whether through photographs, videos, billboards, TV commercials, magazines and now even smartphone ads. In an era of rampant consumerism, is it any surprise than nail salons have rapidly and successfully penetrated into commercial areas throughout the United States? One measure of the cult of beauty is that it has even overwhelmed the demand for caffeine on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In the competition for space in the fashion capital of the world, nail salons are the clear winner: Here, nail salons far outstrip Starbucks locations, as this graphic perfectly shows.

nails-vs-starbucksTo be sure: Self-adornment is as old as humanity. Tattoos have become near-universal these days. And a generation of scholars has pointed out how any distinction between “the economy” and “culture” (if indeed that distinction ever really existed) has rapidly collapsed in the society generally. But even ceding these points, the rapid proliferation of nail salons prompts one to wonder: Why? How can we read this cultural trend? And what does it mean for gender politics generally?

When I address these questions, I for one observe an odd mix of modernity and tradition. Under the mantle of modernity, I see the seductions of bourgeois sophistication and fashion consciousness in an era that cherishes the consumption of luxury goods. I also see capitalism commercializing the labor of self-adornment, commercializing personal body work in ways that are fueled by an abundant supply of pliable, rights-free labor imported from the global south. Under the traditional rubric, I perceive a vaguely aristocratic feature in the spread of beauty rituals that require servants of color to pamper us, however ephemerally. (For a fuller analysis of these issues, see Miliann Kang’s The Managed Hand, on New York nail salons. A very different and equally important study is Adia Harvey Wingfield’s Doing Business with Beauty.)

I wonder: Are these rituals of servitude not perfectly suited to an age in which the fashion industry seems to provide an implicit model for the flexible economy generally? The irony, from my perspective? These rituals perpetuate the very objectifying gaze that generations of feminist thinkers have invited us to transcend. The “us” in that sentence has a double meaning: first, that men such as myself can and ought to be feminists; and second, that beauty is not a thing but a relationship in which we men are implicated in multiple ways.

A further issue question raised in Nir’s report concerns the role of the federal and state governments in regulating either the labor market or worker health. Remarkably, when Nir approached New York State’s Department of Labor (which is responsible for investigating abuses of wage and hour laws) she reported:

[t]he department declined to make anyone available to discuss its investigative work on the record. It took nine months of repeated inquiries from The Times for the department to turn over part of its enforcement database.

Even then a Freedom of Information Act request was needed to pry loose the necessary data. Even the investigations and inspections which were conducted the Labor Department were hobbled by the absence of any Korean speaking investigators (Korean being the primary language spoken in the New York salons), and a complete lack of efficacy. As for the OSHA and the FDA, the story is hardly better. OSHA standards are notoriously lax, and allows the industry to police itself, largely through the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, which is funded by the industry’s own lobbying association and not required to share its data with government agencies. As for the FDA, under legislation written in 1938, the FDA is given almost on authority to regulate cosmetics. Attempts to modernize the regulation of cosmetics have consistently failed, whether at the level of the federal or state government. California’s experience is telling. When the legislature began to move toward tighter regulation,

[i]ndustry lobbyists flooded the State Capitol (some bearing gift baskets of lipstick and nail polish), spending over a half-million dollars fighting the ban, according to state records. Some of the country’s best-known cosmetics companies — Estée Lauder, Mary Kay and OPI, among others — weighed in against it. The bill ultimately failed.

Only now, after years of struggle and now, Nir’s reporting, has Governor Andrew Cuomo moved to intervene, establishing a new Task Force charged with enforcing labor laws, establishing firmer rules to govern health and safety, and charging the Task Force with shuttering establishments that flout the law. This is of course a welcome intervention –but one that comes so late, and only begins to address the broader problem of employer illegality, which industrial relations scholars have bemoaned, and rightly, for years.

A final set of issues emerges from this confluence of factors. There is no shortage of rhetoric concerning the virtues of limited government, of the need to reduce regulations, and to unleash the creative powers of capitalism and entrepreneurial activity. Be careful what you wish for. Here we see a vivid illustration of what happens when the “free market” is unleashed, and the race to the bottom touches down on American shores. When an industry is marked by few barriers to entry, an abundant supply of labor, ethnic ties and networks that facilitate the exploitation of undocumented workers, and a regulatory apparatus that has been largely dismantled, the results are entirely predictable. We are trained to expect the production of prosperity, and instead we discover a new and improved version of the sweatshops that have earned the garment industry so much infamy.

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