Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Thrifty pampering tactics"

Many nail salons in the UK are evidently staffed by slave labor. While it's commonly understood that nail-salon work is potentially dangerous (the fumes! the sharp objects!) as well as symbolically demeaning (a job that is quite literally rubbing people's feet), I suspect most who use these services assume the staff gets paid. The guilt-tip that follows (in the States, at least) is more about tipping being customary, or about this seeming like a particularly crappy job, than any deeper sense that one is somehow mitigating a great wrong (let alone inadvertently giving additional money to human traffickers).

Holly Baxter's piece about this controversy leaves a bit to be desired. Must there be such a long introduction referring back to SATC? And some of the evidence for this problem is kind of weak: "A friend of mine remembered that the last time she had her nails done, it was in a salon entirely staffed by Vietnamese workers, none of whom said a single word during the hour she was there." Maybe this was because the workers had been trafficked, but it could also be that they were Asian (is this friend even sure they were Vietnamese) and not especially chatty (must that always be viewed with suspicion?) or not English speakers.

But mostly, the issue is that she sets things up as if the problem isn't an unregulated sector of the economy, but women being frivolous and amoral, disposing of their disposable income as they see fit: "The thrifty pampering tactics of western women in an economic downturn have provided the perfect opportunity for those who deal in people." In a sense, Baxter is just saying that interests converged. But "tactics"? As I've said so very many times before on WWPD re: cheap clothing, consumers pay what they think is reasonable, based on what things generally cost, and are not sneakily trying to pay an unfair price. If some t-shirts are $5, others are $50, $15 is going to seem reasonable. How's a consumer to know if $15 is or is not a fair price, let alone if, if $15 might be a fair price, $14.99 of that isn't going to the CEO? Along the same lines, if a manicure usually costs X, it's asking a bit much for those who partake to extrapolate how much one would need to cost to cover the rent, materials, and a living wage for the staff. This isn't a consumer issue, but a regulation-from-above one.

But between the nature of the topic and Baxter's own angle, the comments go... as one imagines they would:

One commenter gets to the root of the problem: "Painted, squared-off nails are deeply unattractive. Stop it, women."

Because that's the only style people get done at nail salons? Because women with nails that style necessarily had them done at a place? The idea is that if only women would listen to dude (and it's a dude), two birds would be done in with one stone: an end to human trafficking, and dude's own aesthetic preferences (who knew men even noticed nails?) would be met. Clever!

Another commenter has never heard of prostitution, restaurants, agriculture... "If it wasn't for female vanity, trafficking in cheap labour wouldn't be a problem."

There's of course one of these: "it does always amaze me how easily middle class women are willing to overlook cruelty for the sake of fashion. So these cheap nail bars. Workers dying in Bangladesh to supply cheap clothes, workers dying of lung disease from sanding jeans for that 'just worn' look."

But we get the essential from this gentleman: "As a male I must ask...what price beauty?"

As it always seems to go, women are faulted for not somehow anticipating the revelation the reporting itself contains. It's not enough to question nail salons now and raise awareness of the issue. Women who use them must have known all along. Because it's never just about the issue, whatever the issue is. There needs to be some gratuitous shaming of behavior that's in and of itself relatively harmless. 


Rachel said...

The guilt-tip that follows (in the States, at least) is more about tipping being customary, or about this seeming like a particularly crappy job, than any deeper sense that one is somehow mitigating a great wrong (let alone inadvertently giving additional money to human traffickers).

Actually, this (the crappy wages, not the trafficking, which I knew nothing of) is exactly why I tip big when I get my nails done in the United States. Because, given the low low price of an NYC manicure, I assume my tip is the only money the woman serving me is going to take home that hour or so.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, absolutely re: tipping b/c the pay is low. (Part of why it's a crappy job!) What I meant - and I now see I expressed it awkwardly - was that it's like tipping in a restaurant in the States - it's part of paying, but it's not an acknowledgement that the worker you're paying is a slave, which... you'd tend to assume they're not. Guilt is involved, in a way, but not on that scale.

But it's certainly disturbing to think that one could tip well and the money still wouldn't go to the manicurist. (Slaves, I'm assuming, don't get to keep their tips.) Which is part of why the 'women are frivolous and stingy' angle gets to me here. Plenty of women may well be tipping on cheap manicures, and inadvertently supporting trafficking that much more.

Britta said...

Reading more of the comments, it turns out that article is BS. The claim is that there are at minimum 70,000 trafficked Vietnamese prostitutes cum manicurists, but according to a human rights report, there are a total of 10,000 trafficked individuals in the EU. Even given the latter number may be low, there is no way that Vietnamese manicurists in the UK secretly make up 7 times the number of trafficked people total. People doubt the number of Vietnamese migrants total (100,000), but the article is implying illegal = trafficked women, which there is no evidence for. Rather, the article condones boycotting nail salons run by Vietnamese people simply because some of them may be trafficked, but this just seems like a way to discriminate against Vietnamese manicurists and provide legitimate people of work based on their national origin.

Britta said...

*deprive, not provide

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"prostitutes cum manicurists"


But yes, point taken - the figures are apparently off. And the result is going to be xenophobia-as-good-deed. And, like I said, who's to say the average British manicure-getter can even tell which Southeast Asian (or Asian) people are Vietnamese? (Or, for that matter, who's Danish vs. Finnish vs. Serbian...) I mean, who knows? Maybe Korean manicurists in NYC are actually trafficked Vietnamese-British sex slaves! Point being, the xenophobia will likely trickle down to various other populations with even less to do with this than undocumented-but-not-trafficked Vietnamese manicurists.