Today’s KT cited Korean media reactions to a NYT investigative article about the alleged exploitation of workers at New York City’s Korean dominated nail salons. The KT claimed Korean media view the article as “potentially racist” and focused on The New York Times’ “distortion of the truth” and the fear of a potential backlash that could lead to racial discrimination against Koreans in America:
Various Korean news outlets claim the article is a “distortion of truth against Korean-owned nail shops.”
Joongang Ilbo’s affiliate channel JTBC reported that wage differences were related only to workers’ years of experience, and that most shops pay the legal wage.
Lee Sang-ho, from the Korean Society in New York, told JTBC, “This could trigger negative views of Koreans and lead to racial discrimination against Koreans in America.”
He said Korean owners of nail shops in New York would hold a press conference disputing the NYT report.
SBS also reported that Korean owners were planning an official response stating that most of the article was untrue and pointing out that there might be a backlash against Koreans in the U.S.
Based on journalist Sarah Maslin Nir’s 13-month investigation, The New York Times published the two-part piece with part two as the lead article on its website. Part one, Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers, focused on health issues faced by the nail technicians. Part two, The Price of Nice Nails, used the words Korea or Korean 23 times. Here is a sampling.
Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often shockingly plain-spoken in their disparagement of workers of other backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.
…An Ethnic Caste System
As the throngs of manicurists gather in Flushing, Queens, every morning, the patter of “good mornings” is mostly in Chinese and Spanish, with the occasional snatches of Tibetan or Nepali. Korean is hardly ever heard among these workers heading to salons outside New York City, many of them hours away.
But to the customer settling into the comfort of a pedicure chair in Manhattan, it can seem as if nearly the entire work force is Korean.
The contrast stems from the stark ethnic hierarchy imposed by nail salon owners. Seventy percent to 80 percent of salons in the city are Korean-owned, according to the Korean American Nail Salon Association.
…Manicurists from Korea dominate in Manhattan; others are often shuttled to the other boroughs or out of the city, where business is slower.
…Korean manicurists, particularly if they are youthful and attractive, typically have their pick of the most desirable jobs in the industry — shiny shops on Madison Avenue and in other affluent parts of the city. Non-Korean manicurists are often forced into less desirable jobs in the boroughs outside Manhattan or even farther out from the city, where customers are typically fewer and tips often paltry.
In general, Korean workers earn at least 15 percent to 25 percent more than their counterparts, but the disparity can sometimes be much greater, according to manicurists, beauty school instructors and owners.
Some bosses 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.
Many Korean owners are frank about their prejudices. “Spanish employees” are not as smart as Koreans, or as sanitary, said Mal Sung Noh, 68, who is known as Mary, at the front desk of Rose Nails, a salon she owns on the Upper East Side. …Ms. Noh said she kept her Hispanic manicurists at the lowest rung of work. “They don’t want to learn more,” she said.
Ethnic discrimination imbues other aspects of salon life. Male pedicure customers are despised by many manicurists for their thick toenails and hair-covered knuckles. When a man comes into the store, almost invariably a non-Korean worker is first draft for his foot bath, salon workers said.
Ana Luisa Camas, 32, an Ecuadorean immigrant, said that at a Korean-owned Connecticut salon where she worked, she and her Hispanic colleagues were made to sit in silence during their entire 12-hour shifts, while the Korean manicurists were free to chat.
…Lhamo Dolma, 39, a manicurist from Tibet who goes by Jackey, recalled a former job at a Brooklyn salon where she had to eat lunch every day standing in a kitchenette with the shop’s other non-Korean workers, while her Korean counterparts ate at their desks.
“Their country people, they are completely free,” she said in an interview in her house in Queens, seated on a low settee beneath her household’s Buddhist shrine. She began to cry. “Why do they make us two different?” she said. “Everybody is the same.”
…Many owners defended their business methods as the only way to stay afloat.
Ansik Nam, former president of the Korean American Nail Salon Association, said that in the early 2000s, scores of owners held an emergency meeting at a Korean restaurant in Flushing, hoping to prevent manicure and pedicure prices from sagging further. He said no agreement was reached.
What’s more alarming is the context that the owners of the salons get mentioned in:
On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived from China, stood among them for the first time, headed to a job at a salon in a Long Island strip mall. …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.
…The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.
…Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a second-story salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers.
Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; the minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.
…Among the hidden customs are how new manicurists get started. Most must hand over cash — usually $100 to $200, but sometimes much more — as a training fee. Weeks or months of work in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship follows.
Ms. Ren spent almost three months painting on pedicures and slathering feet with paraffin wax before one afternoon in the late summer when her boss drew her into a waxing room and told her she would finally be paid.
“I just burst into laughter unconsciously,” Ms. Ren said. “I have been working for so long while making zero money; now finally my hard work paid off.”
That night her cousins threw her a party. The next payday she learned her day wage would amount to under $3 an hour.
Responses to the NYT exposé have been immediate and massive. The NYT articles’ comments sections have comments that number in the thousands. Interestingly, I did not find an anti-Korean bias in any of the comments and few mentions of the words Korea or Koreans. Those that did mention Koreans mentioned them in the context of their relations with other Asians. The NYT seems to have even turned the article into a mini-franchise with published entries on how to be a socially conscious salon customer, a NY Times blog entry about readers’ responses, and an interview with the piece’s author.
The article’s author Sarah Maslin Nir opened a Facebook page for questions with questions and comments numbering in the hundreds. At the time of this writing, none of the 12 references to Korean or Koreans expressed negativity toward Korea or Koreans. FB users’ questions centered around how to get more money to the exploited workers and whether the shops’ landlords or others were somehow culpable. Commenters also commended the NYT for publishing the article in Korean, Chinese, and Spanish, some pledging to give the article to their manicurists.
Slate answered the question Worried That Your Manicurist Is Being Exploited? Tipping More Probably Won’t Help, specifically citing Korean businesses.
So how can customers go about getting their fingernails varnished ethically? Well, one approach would be to avoid businesses that are primarily staffed by vulnerable immigrants. There are downsides to this. First, it will obviously cost you more to go somewhere that employs less easily exploited staff. Second, it feels extremely xenophobic—you’d basically be vowing to avoid Korean businesses. Third, by not patronizing your former favorite salon, you’re more or less guaranteeing that its employees earn even less.
On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered emergency measures to combat health hazards and wage theft in the nail salon industry in response to the NYT article. The Governor’s strong actions were reported in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Business Insider (“following last week’s NYT bombshell report”), and a raft of others. CBS Los Angeles reported that the problem exists in Los Angeles too. LA and NYC are a continent apart, and I can’t make the connection.
Returning to the featured image for this piece, I can’t help but giggle at the overwhelming force aligning against those (fighting!) salon owners. My mood is then tempered by the Korean media’s choice of angle in this story.
EDIT: I regret my choice of title for this article, only because the title seems to have devolved discussion into charges of “sensationalism” and detracted from the piece’s real issue. I would have replaced this piece’s original featured image with the headline from the article that inspired this piece (see below).
As far as charges of sensationalism go, I see only three places in the original piece that are not purely objective, lack citation, and interject opinion:
- “What’s more alarming is the context that the owners of the salons get mentioned in:”
- “LA and NYC are a continent apart, and I can’t make the connection.”
- “Returning to the featured image for this piece, I can’t help but giggle at the overwhelming force aligning against those (fighting!) salon owners. My mood is then tempered by the Korean media’s choice of angle in this story.”
All other statements and claims are cited. My goal is to return the emphasis to the content of the piece. If I could rewrite the piece’s title, I would have likely used a title adapted from this piece’s inspiration: Korean media calls NYT ‘potentially racist’
Screen capture of KT article that inspired this piece: