The New York Times deserves a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation of the exploitation of women by an industry most of us make use of from time to time: those ubiquitous nail salons.

New York is the nail salon capital of the nation, but here in Washington you can zip in for a manicure, once the prerogative of the wealthy, at an untold number of outlets.  

I'm not a bleeding heart, but let me warn you: This is a gut-wrenching story.

You’ll never get a manicure or pedicure again, however, with a completely clean conscience after you’ve read this expose. The article is headlined “The Price of Nice Nails,” and it ran on Sunday. The reporter is Sarah Maslin Nir and she did a fine job.

The exploitation of manicurists, who are often illegal workers, most of whom don’t know English, is something we associate with other countries, almost other worlds. They work ten to twelve hour days and are often not paid for months on end. That’s right: not paid. The article begins with May, Jing Ren, 20, recently from China, clutching the tools a manicurist must have and cuing up to get a job:   

Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage.

It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars a day.

Ms. Ren was able to land a job:

Ms. Ren worked at Bee Nails, a chandelier-spangled salon in Hicksville, N.Y., where leather pedicure chairs are equipped with iPads on articulated arms so patrons can scroll the screens without smudging their manicures. They rarely spoke more than a few words to Ms. Ren, who, like most manicurists, wore a fake name chosen by a supervisor on a tag pinned to her chest. She was “Sherry.” She worked in silence, sloughing off calluses from customers’ feet or clipping dead skin from around their fingernail beds.

At night she returned to sleep jammed in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing with her cousin, her cousin’s father and three strangers. Beds crowded the living room, each cordoned off by shower curtains hung from the ceiling. When lights flicked on in the kitchen, cockroaches skittered across the countertops.

Let me just guess that Ms. Ren will not benefit one iota from all the high-flown talk of hiking the minimum wage. The issue here is cheap labor from people who have no recourse to the law. Rich Lowry says that the Times story gets at “the ugly underbelly of immigration.” Lowry writes:

When politicians discuss immigration, it is usually in high-flying terms. Jeb Bush says that “immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.” Politicians always talk of importing the best and the brightest from abroad. But New York City’s salons capture the tawdry reality of illegal immigration, which creates islands of lawlessness where people can be mistreated with little consequence.

There is an economic upside to this dispensation, no doubt. There has been booming growth in nail salons in New York City during the past 15 years, and prices haven’t really changed since the 1990s, according to the Times. This is a boon to women who want an affordable reverse-French manicure. In this case, and in many others, illegal immigration is a subsidy for the upper-middle class that can enjoy cheaper services than it would if the country had a strictly legal labor market and lower levels of overall immigration.

No one wants to hear it, though. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker suggested that the effect on wages of American workers should be the first concern in considering levels of immigration, the political class recoiled in horror. Surely, one reason that salons can pay so poorly is that the supply of illegal workers is so plentiful. And this supply of labor must, at least at the margins, crowd out workers already here who might consider working in salons if pay and conditions were better. The New York Times exposed the price of nice nails — and of cheap labor.

Speaking only for myself, I would say that the plight of these women is not an argument for a path to citizenship for those who come here illegally. It is rather a reason to try to stop illegal immigration which leads to such exploitation. I feel certain that Tamar Jacoby (and indeed some of my IWF colleagues) would have a different response to the nails story.

Still, I can't help thinking that by not halting illegal immigration, we are allowing these women to be exploitedby bosses and the coyotes who bring them here in the first place. Of these women, Lowry writes:

Their stories are heart-wrenching, if drearily predictable. These are women who often don’t know the language, don’t have any social support, have very few skills in an economy that increasingly demands them, and have little ability to complain about their working conditions, or anything else. What does anyone think is going to happen to them? The overwhelmingly Korean owners of the salons particularly exploit the Hispanic workers. “Some bosses,” according to the Times, “deliberately prey on the desperation of Hispanic manicurists, who are often drowning under large debts owed to ‘coyotes’ who smuggled them across the border, workers and advocates say.”
This is a story that reveals human cruelty. That will always be with us. But we don't have to allow these women to continue to come here to be exloited.
Read the New York Times story.