Curb nail salon worker abuse

Lengthy exposure to chemicals in nail products are among the hazards suffered by workers in California nail salons.
Lengthy exposure to chemicals in nail products are among the hazards suffered by workers in California nail salons. rbyer@sacbee.com

Manicures and pedicures once were luxuries for ladies of leisure. Now, like throwaway fashion, cheap produce and other luxuries of this globalized era, nice nails have become an entitlement of the middle class.

Few ask how those French tips and pink toenails came to be such a bargain. The answer, unfortunately, isn’t pretty.

According to a recent New York Times exposé, the mostly immigrant women who tend the hands and feet of this nation endure appalling health hazards and levels of wage theft.

In New York, abusive salon owners effectively get away with paying sub-poverty wages, thanks in part to that state’s extra-low minimum wage for tipped workers. In California, manicurists suffer alarming rates of respiratory problems, miscarriages and cancer, the result, researchers increasingly suspect, of exposure to toxic chemicals in nail products.

Perhaps most shocking, though, is how these abuses persist, given all that we know about the vulnerability of low-wage and immigrant workers.

California deserves praise for resisting the so-called “tipped minimum,” for which businesses push. But we’ve long known that working conditions in nail salons were unhealthy, and that the federal government – whose cosmetics regulations are so lax that the industry is all but self-regulated at the national level – does little about it.

In 2005, California lawmakers tried to get dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, a chemical linked to serious health problems, out of nail products, but industry pressure beat the ban back. So even here, where we pride ourselves on tough health laws, salon workers toil in stuffy storefronts, inhaling fumes from polishes and solvents.

Markets don’t correct these issues unprompted. In 2012, a random test by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control showed that even in some products whose manufactures claimed to have gone nontoxic, hazardous chemicals remained.

The department has since launched a program to replace hazardous materials in consumer products with safer ingredients, but it is still in early stages. As it grows, nail products should be the next priority.

Counties also should consider a “seal of approval” being pushed by the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, an Oakland-based advocacy group that thinks consumers should know which salons have proper ventilation, “green” products and manicurists who were trained in worker safety.

The state also could close a safety loophole and mandate ingredient lists on professional nail products. And salon workers could use better information in languages other than English.

Patrons of the businesses have responsibility, too. They could remember that someone probably is being exploited when a price seems to good to be true.

But mostly, abuse like this, in salons and elsewhere, cries out for stronger government oversight of employers and workplaces, which has weakened as globalization has grown.