Labor of Love: Nail Salon Work and Advocacy

by Linh Chuong

The television is blaring; my sisters and I are doing school work and harassing each other; my father alternates between reading his daily Vietnamese newspapers and nodding off on the couch; my mother insists she needs to go to the Asian market for something, even though we have a fridge packed with food that my father and I conspire to throw away piecemeal when she is unaware. In the warm California sun, there are jars of pickled lemons sitting outside next to an assortment of vegetation—Thai basil, aloe vera, a guava tree, grape vines, and leafy, green mint running rampant; deep purple irises slowly bud next to lavender and white roses along the black metal gate, curving green elephant ear stalks bend over the earth, shaded underneath the fruit trees bursting in hues of green and orange and yellow: persimmons, clementines, and Meyer lemons.

That is how I always remember our home. We have all dispersed in the four years since I left Los Angeles for college in Conway, Arkansas. Even when I make the annual 1,600 mile pilgrimage home, I can’t return to that place in time.

These days I mostly see my sister as the green dot on Facebook chat. Michelle online? Green dot. I am in a computer lab at school, procrastinating on the seemingly endless stream of papers, annotated bibliographies, reading summaries, and discussion questions, or listlessly browsing the internet in search of news and entertainment: Tumblr, BBC, Facebook, Salon, Hyphen, fashion and food blogs, goat photos, anything not-school. Five hundred miles away, I imagine Michelle at the impeccable, glistening white nail salon and spa where she works, sitting at her station with her nail polish, acetone, files, emory boards, lotions, cotton swabs, and other tools of the trade. She is checking Facebook on her phone as she waits for a customer, for her turn alongside the other Vietnamese women nail technicians.

I wonder if today is a good day: were there a lot of customers for all the workers? Did she earn a lot of tips? Did she save a funny story to tell me? Or was today a bad day? Did she deal with a demanding, ungrateful customer? Did her boss pocket her tips? Are her coworkers still copying her style of dress? Did they steal her lunch, or cut her turn to get a good tipper?

I don’t message her to ask. The parts of her life she chooses to reveal to me come in rare snippets. When we do talk, she tells me not to worry about her or our family; instead she asks about my graduate school plans, and reminds me to “study hard, and make sure to study something that makes money.” Always strong and stoic, always trying to be my support and shield, she puts me first and asks me to do the same.

I cannot. As her prying sister, I compile information from Facebook newsfeeds and from conversations with my mom and my other sisters. As a nerd and activist, I apply a social justice and theoretical framework to understand her life.

Vietnamese women are disproportionally represented in nail salon work. It is estimated that women make up ninety-five percent of the nail salon industry.[i] Vietnamese people represent less than one percent of the United States population, yet Vietnamese women account for close to forty percent of the industry’s workers nationwide,[ii] and as much as eighty percent in California.[iii]  And the work they do puts them at risk. Because of chemical exposure, my sister may develop cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, respiratory problems and central nervous system depression. Her unborn children are at risk of developing central nervous system dysfunction, attention deficit disorder, as well as craniofacial and limb anomalies. And, if it’s a boy, we will have to worry not only about what to name him, but whether he may have reproductive problems.

My sister may not have all of the statistics, but she knows at least some of the risks she is taking. She doesn’t know it, but I fight for her even when I’m studying in an Arkansas computer lab.

~

 As significant as she is to me personally, I recognize her experience is connected to a larger stream of herstory: the Vietnamese refugee experience. Vietnamese America emerged from the ashes of the Vietnam War. When South Vietnam was lost, people fled by sea, by air, by whatever means possible. Families were torn apart in the process, but it was said that “to stay meant to die.” [iv] From 1975 to 2010, the American Community Survey estimates that there were 771,834 Vietnamese refugees that settled in the United States alone.

My family was lucky. My father was a lieutenant in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). After the war, the Viet Cong subjected him to torture for three and a half years in a hard labor camp (trại cải tạo). My father left fifty pounds in that camp, but he managed to walk away with his life. The story of my family’s life after trại cải tạo could stretch for volumes, but simply put, because of this camp experience, the United States government admitted us under a subset of the Orderly Departure Program known as the Humanitarian Operation. When we landed in Los Angeles, we came together, as a family.

However, it isn’t enough to just look at my family and community as “Vietnamese refugees.” To do so is to deny the complexity of human experience, the realities of longer histories of transplantation and forced migration which leave indigenous people generationally and structurally violated. My family lived in Vietnam for two hundred years, but my ancestors are displaced Chinese ethnic minorities, indigenous to the mountains of southern China: Yao and Ngai. There are also Hmong people who fought the Secret War in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao and its North Vietnamese allies. When the North Vietnamese won, Hmong were brutally persecuted for it. There are approximately 260,073 Hmong refugee-immigrants in the United States as of the 2010 American Community Survey. Degar, Cham, Khmer Krom, Chinese and other ethnic minorities in Vietnam were targeted by the North Vietnamese government. While the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants were better educated, wealthier, and politically connected to the United States, the second wave had a more difficult time assimilating. It is important to understand a few things: that the Vietnamese American community is diverse, that they are connected to a Southeast Asian history, and that some of us are suffering from circumstances that are connected to a much longer history of oppression. Health access, educational attainment, and a variety of other measures of circumstance are at similarly dismal rates for Vietnamese as they are for Latinos.

While I am busy reading academic research articles on these issues, my sisters are reading Vietnamese newspapers’ classified sections for advertisements from salon owners in Wisconsin, Florida, and other places around the country. There is a strong Vietnamese network for those interested in nail salon work. Growing up in Los Angeles, my aunts were nail technicians, as were family friends and other community members. During one of our recent phone calls, my mother tells me a family friend had called, asking if one of my sisters would be interested in a job at their salon. Even in Arkansas, I have Vietnamese friends whose mothers are nail technicians. Some are embarrassed, but it’s no secret.

Most nail salon workers are working more than forty hours a week and making less than $19,000 a year. Despite the long hours, they are not entitled to many important government labor protections because nail salon workers are legally seen as “renting” a station in a salon, much like contracted laborers. Thus, employer-based health insurance is not required, nor are worker’s compensations, overtime pay, or minimum wage protections. Although numbers for Vietnamese nail salon workers are not known, a 2013 study by Clough, Lee, and Chae estimates that thirty percent of Vietnamese immigrants are uninsured compared to non-Hispanic whites, who have an uninsured rate of under twelve percent.[v] In addition, they have to buy their own supplies and split a significant amount of any revenue they generate with the salon owner: they receive sixty percent of profits if they are lucky, but sometimes it may be closer to fifty or forty percent. And although there are many salons that cater to different socioeconomic demographics, generally speaking salon customers want young women to serve them. As a result of the low pay, the way the industry is structured, and customer demand, nail salon workers tend to be women of color who are of reproductive age and lack basic health care coverage.[vi]

This industry is the lifeblood of the Vietnamese community. It is supplementing the income of my brother’s factory work salary, paying for my aunt’s home, and helping her daughter study pharmacology at a good state school in California. It is helping my sister buy her starter home and enabling countless other immigrant women, who have limited English proficiency or do not have a degree, to have a life and support their family. For some it is a welcome alternative to garment factory work, factory assembly lines, or waitressing. Furthermore, some of the beauty schools in Southern California are run and staffed by Vietnamese people, allowing recent immigrant women to be trained by people who understand them and can help them through the confusing process of getting their hours and licensure.

Although $19,000 a year may seem a very low salary, when you grow up in neighborhoods with neighbors who also have a low income, with parents who have a low income, and you don’t have a job, nail salon work is a viable option. Furthermore, as a refugee you always compare life in America to life before America. Survival is hard, but there is hope here.

My sister is not like her coworkers or my aunts. She has a bachelor’s degree. She was in a managerial position with a 401(k) and averaged a sixty-hour work week. She is like many other aspiring and hardworking college graduates in America, but she is also unique because she is Vietnamese and a woman. When the economy faltered and her career veered off track, she didn’t join the military or become a waitress—she turned to nail salon work. As a woman in her early thirties with charm, good English, impeccable dress, and the ability to offer massage, waxing, and facial tattooing services on top of her full skill set in professional nail care, my sister makes significantly more than the average nail technician. So much so that she is contemplating opening her own shop.

She would not be alone. Women like my sister are part of the trend of Asian-American female business entrepreneurs. In 2010, the American Community Survey data showed that immigrant women are more likely than American-born women to own their own businesses (nine  percent to six and a half percent). Immigrant women comprised forty percent of all immigrant business owners and twenty percent of all women business owners.[vii]

As such, nail salons do offer very real economic opportunities. They are significant. They empower immigrant women and give them access to a niche market that they have made part of our community, but the long-term health risks are also part of our lives and a constant worry I harbor for my family members in the industry.

~

Nowadays, nail care is booming. It is in fact the fastest growing sector in the beauty industry, making an estimated six billion dollars in annual sales, and is reputed to have grown three hundred percent over the last decade.[viii] The growth of industry oversight, however, has not increased to keep up with the industry itself. According to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, “nail products contain more than 10,000 chemicals, 89 percent of which have not been evaluated for safety by any independent agency prior to marketing,”[ix] and according to the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, there is currently “no law requiring disclosure of certain ingredients such as fragrances, flavorings, and anything designated as ‘trade secrets.’”[x] Professional quality nail products are also excluded from ingredient labeling requirements by the Food and Drug Administration.[xi] Simply put, there is not enough known about the products we are spreading on our hands and our feet, and that technicians are breathing in on a daily basis.

As someone who once thought she was going to be studying chemical engineering, I know chemicals are not all bad. We are made up of chemicals and even lab-produced chemicals can be good (e.g. medicine). Yet, I also know that at the bare minimum there are three products found in nail products that are linked to a host of illnesses. The National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance contends that:

Toluene helps create a smooth finish across the nail and also keeps the pigment from separating from the liquid in the bottle. It is a common volatile solvent that is released into the air and can impact the central nervous system. It can also cause irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs and is a possible reproductive toxin. Formaldehyde, which is used as a nail hardening agent, is also a volatile chemical that can evaporate into the air of a salon. Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is a plasticizing chemical, added to nail polishes to provide flexibility and a moisturizing sheen. DBP exposure can effect thyroid function and, in pregnant women, has been linked to reproductive problems in baby boys as well as to decreased sperm count in adult men.[xii]

Pouring through written testimonies of thyroid cancer and respiratory problems, hearing my sister talk about the headaches she gets from sitting in the shop for sixty hours a week, and imagining the unborn children my thirty year old sister could have, I need for things to be better for her and her coworkers.

In order to tackle this problem, one must navigate a complicated political web, a map of policies that interact to oversee cosmetics. Authority, funding, and enforcement capabilities to help improve the nail salon industry volleys between the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. There are community-led organizations that work with each other, politicians, the government agencies, and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to advocate for changes in policy. I interned with one of these groups in D.C. who hoped to one day have technology that allows for more conscious monitoring, like sensors in cellphones to recognize when toxicity levels become too high. The industry needs to change to recognize the labor rights of nail technicians, health care, and immigrant rights. There is a need for understanding how environmental issues are not just about conserving rain forests in South America, but also grappling with the pollution in nail salons and the chemicals found in nail products. These goals may be farther off in the future.

Until there are better job opportunities for these women, nail salons will continue to be run, staffed, and trained in large part by Vietnamese women. What needs to happen now, then, is not a boycott. Ending your patronage won’t destroy the cosmetics industry, but it might cut off these women from already limited means of earning income, opportunities to be entrepreneurs, and the achievement of their American dreams.

As citizens, we can demand our politicians craft and fund legislation that better protects our bodies and our environment. As consumers we can ask companies to produce nail salon products that do not contain the toxic trio and ask shops to stock green options or bring our own.[xiii] We can ask for cleaner air: vent hoods can be installed at the work stations, improving ventilation overall in the salon space.[xiv] And as human beings, we can be nice to the workers at salons, because it is my sister, my aunt, my community who stands by you and greets you there. Tell my sister I miss her and say hello: chào.


[i] Hu, Karen, Christine Soyong Harley, and Miriam W. Yeung. “Removing the Topcoat: Understanding Federal Oversight of Nail Salons.” National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum on behalf of The National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance. May 2011. Web.

[ii] Hu, Karen, et al. 2011.

[iii] Quach T, Nguyen K-D, Doan-Billings P-A, Okahara L, Fan C, Reynolds P. “A Preliminary Survey of Vietnamese Nail Salon Workers in Alameda County, California.” Community Health 33 (2008) 336-343. citing Federman MN, Harrington, D E,, Krynski, KJ. (2006). “Vietnamese manicurists: Are immigrants displacing natives or finding new nails to polish?” Industrial & Labor Relations Review 59, 302–318. Web.

[iv] Rutledge, Paul James. The Vietnamese Experience in America. US: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print.

[v] Clough, Juliana, Sunmin Lee, David H. Chae. “Barriers to Health Care among Asian Immigrants in the United States: A Traditional Review.” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 24 (2013): 384–403. Web.

[vi] Hu, Karen, et al. 2011.

[vii] Pearce, Susan C., Elizabeth J. Clifford and Reena Tandon. “Our American Immigrant Entrepreneurs: The Women.” Immigration Policy Center. Dec. 2011. Web.

[viii] Gorman, Alexandra and Philip O’Connor. “Glossed Over.” Women’s Voices for the Earth, Feb. 2007 < http://www.womensvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Glossed_Over.pdf> Web.

[ix] National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “The Nail Salon Industry and the Impact of Cosmetic Toxins on API Women’s Reproductive Health.” Feb. 2008. 1

[x] Porter, Catherine A. “Overexposed and Underinformed: Dismantling Barriers to Health and Safety in California Nail Salons.” California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. April 2009.16

[xi] Gorman, Alexandra and Philip O’Connor. Feb. 2007. 8.

[xii] National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance. “Phasing Out the Toxic Trio: A Review of Popular Nail Polish Brands” May 2009.

[xiii] The 2009 Phasing Out the “Toxic Trio” report produced a simple survey of the major companies and shows which of them have made their products “three-free.” This can be used as an initial reference guide. However this information was self-reported and not confirmed by independent laboratory testing.

[xiv] Most of the organizations discussed offer recommendations. Some sources include the EPA’s <http://www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/salon/nailsalonguide.pdf> and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice’s < http://strongfamiliesmovement.org/assets/docs/ACRJ-Nail-Salon-Health-and-Safety-Handbook-English.pdf>