There are millions of low-wage immigrant workers across the United States who make life easier for professionals in various ways. These immigrants prepare and serve meals, clean homes and offices, care for children and aging parents and grandparents, drive passengers to and fro, and, among many other things, clean, trim, and paint nails. Over the past few days, Sarah Maslin Nir’s two-part report in the New York Times on labor conditions in America’s burgeoning manicure industry has attracted a great deal of attention, and for good reason. Nir’s work is a powerful reminder that low-wage immigrant workers aren’t always treated terribly well.
After interviewing 150 nail-salon workers in four different languages, Nir and her colleagues found that workers in New York City’s nail salons are routinely paid less than the statutory minimum wage for tipped workers, and indeed that workers are often required to pay salon owners for the privilege of setting up shop. The workers’ behavior is tightly regulated by salon owners, who subject them to humiliating treatment, and who routinely skim their tips. New workers are denied compensation for their first months on the job, with the understanding that salon owners are employing them on a trial basis. And salon owners maintain a rigid racial hierarchy, in which members of some groups are privileged over others, on the basis of their perceived skills. Those who’ve worked in nail salons for long periods of time often develop serious respiratory ailments and skin disorders, and some appear to have complications with their pregnancies. Yet workers have little recourse, as many are unauthorized immigrants and an even larger share are immigrants with only a limited command of English.
To those of us who follow immigration closely, and who were raised by immigrants in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, none of this comes as a shock. Yet Nir’s reporting is eye-opening all the same, as she documents the scale and the pervasiveness of exploitative conditions in a city where prices and wages are relatively high and labor standards are relatively stringent. If low-wage immigrant workers are treated so poorly in New York City, a monolithically liberal city where the municipal and state governments are theoretically so committed to protecting the rights of immigrants and workers, how are they treated elsewhere?
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, never one to shy away from capitalizing on a news story that’s gone viral, has ordered new measures to protect nail-salon workers. A number of news outlets, including Vice, Newshour, Here & Now, and The Takeaway, have interviewed Nir about her findings. Ann Friedman of The Cut has reflected on the deeper meaning of manicures for working women, observing that getting one’s nails done is “a luxury that’s affordable because the women doing the grooming are often exploited.” Many readers reacted to Nir’s report by concluding that they ought to tip salon workers more generously. But according to Jordan Weissmann of Slate, more generous tips won’t solve the real problem, which is that the authorities charged with enforcing labor standards are under-resourced. Dara Lind of Vox, meanwhile, has offered readers a rough guide to getting an ethical manicure. That one story prompted so many reactions, from elected officials and policymakers to prominent public intellectuals, is striking.
But with the exception of Rich Lowry’s recent column, the conversation about Nir’s piece hasn’t really engaged with the larger dilemma of U.S. immigration policy. The economic case for less-skilled immigration rests on the notion that low wages for immigrants are actually a good thing, as long as U.S. wages are higher than the wages these immigrants would receive in their native countries. The discomfort that Nir’s article has generated demonstrates that on a gut level, many educated Americans don’t quite buy this argument. They don’t think that paying a nail salon worker a higher wage than she’d earn in China’s Guangdong Province is enough. They seem to believe that labor protections and wage standards shouldn’t be weakened or lowered for new arrivals to the United States. If that is the case, however, the case for less-skilled immigration is greatly weakened.
The economic case for less-skilled immigration rests on the notion that low wages for immigrants are actually a good thing.
Why is that? One of the arguments for welcoming large numbers of less-skilled immigrants to the U.S. that we hear most often is that these workers will do jobs that Americans won’t do. What this really means is that less-skilled immigrant workers will work for wages that even poor Americans find unacceptably low. Part of the reason is that recent immigrants tend not to be eligible for many safety-net benefits while poor natives and more established immigrants are, which is to say that poor Americans generally have some alternative, even if not a very attractive alternative, to taking on menial jobs that offer extremely low pay.
Because less-skilled immigrant workers are willing to work for such low wages, they lower the cost to skilled professionals of outsourcing various household tasks, and so they make it easier for these skilled professionals to work longer hours. If I’m not slaving away over a hot stove and instead am eating at a quick-service restaurant staffed by a low-wage immigrant worker, I can work an extra hour or two and earn a higher real income. And these low-wage immigrant workers are presumably better off than they were in their native countries. So there you have it: Everybody wins from less-skilled immigration.
In fairness, most advocates of increases in legal immigration insist that they do want more stringent labor protections for all workers, including immigrant workers, and that they have no intention of weakening wage standards. Rather, they want to extend legal status to unauthorized immigrants, such as the nail-salon workers Nir profiles. I don’t doubt that legal status will help protect these workers from exploitative employers. But it won’t change the fact that wages for less-skilled workers are under intense pressure, whether these workers are native- or foreign-born. Immigrant workers tend to have lower levels of educational attainment than native workers, and there is little doubt that the disemployment effect of higher minimum wages will be greater for less-skilled immigrants than for natives. Under a higher wage floor, many employers will choose to rely on a smaller number of more skilled workers augmented by machines than a larger number of less-skilled workers.
Moreover, once we grant legal status to these workers, we will have decided that they are members of our national community. Taxpayers will have an obligation to finance safety-net benefits for them and their children. Someone will have to finance the treatment of the respiratory ailments and skin disorders caused by long exposure to toxic nail products, and it’s not going to be women earning poverty wages. Suddenly those cheap manicures won’t look quite so cheap.
Might our society be better off in important ways if professionals paid more for various services and workers had stronger labor protections and higher wages? And if we decided that even the lowest of low-end jobs ought to have stronger labor protections and pay higher wages, doesn’t it stand to reason that more Americans would be willing to take these jobs? I don’t expect New Yorkers who’ve been moved by Sarah Maslin Nir’s reporting to spend too much time dwelling on these questions. But they should.