Commentary

Why Cuomo’s Nail-Salon Crackdown Will Hurt Immigrants

On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a regulatory blitz against New York City’s nail-salon industry, prompted by a shocking New York Times exposé of abuse, theft, low pay and possible health hazards for manicurists.

It will do more harm than good.

In the nail industry in New York City, poor immigrants from China, Korea and Central America, many of them undocumented, work in terrible conditions and suffer wage theft by unscrupulous employers.

Wage theft is a crime — and there are entire government agencies charged with investigating it.

But Cuomo’s new regulatory push would be counterproductive because, as one Labor Department investigator put it, manicurists “are totally running scared.” They do not cooperate with regulators.

Unleashing regulators will do little, whereas empowering these workers to help themselves by granting them legal status will do wonders.

Why don’t these workers turn in employers who steal their wages? Because America’s immigration laws and the threat of deportation scare them into silence.

The truth is that a $3-an-hour wage in New York City, in dangerous conditions, with partial wage theft, is better than a 32-cent-an-hour job at a sweatshop in China or Central America. Many don’t want to risk giving that up.

This regulatory crackdown is just the “do anything” response of a government embarrassed by an attention-grabbing investigation. Since workers don’t complain, this crackdown will be virtually impossible to enforce.

The Department of Labor will have to raid salons, check their business licenses and audit their records. Some of these nail salons lack licenses, so they will be shut down.

Manicurists also must be licensed in New York by passing an examination at the end of a 250-hour course, paying a fee and undergoing a doctor’s exam, among other requirements.

Many lack these licenses, so even if they are legal immigrants they are legally unable to work as a manicurist.

Enforcing licensing requirements will force many manicurists out of the profession and into unemployment, worse jobs, deeper into the black market or to different states with less enforcement.

A 2006 study found that Vietnamese manicurists were deterred by strict state-licensing laws that require English-language proficiency and more hours of training.

Although New York’s license doesn’t require English, few manicurists bother to actually get it because they can’t afford to spend 250 hours in classes.

At best, licensing enforcement will decrease the health and wage violations only by decreasing the number of manicurists — a worse outcome for poor workers and immigrants.

New health regulations will also raise the cost of employing manicurists. There’s a trade-off between healthy working conditions and higher wages.

Skilled workers generally choose better conditions over more pay, lower-skilled workers the opposite.

More regulations on potentially harmful chemicals will shut down many salons, flooding the market with unlicensed and unemployed manicurists who are willing to sacrifice health for slightly higher — but still low by American standards — wages.

The root of the problem is that 69 percent of trafficked workers lack another important license — a green card or work permit.

They know that if they contact the police, courts or Labor Department, there is a higher chance they will be deported than if they just kept quiet. This black market is sustained by our immigration restrictions, not a lack of workplace regulations.

Vietnamese are the counter-example. They make up about half of all manicurists but are less likely to be abused because 76 percent of them are citizens — more than any other group of Asian-Americans.

Thus, they can change jobs without fear of violating their status, bargain for higher wages and report wage theft.

Unleashing regulators will do little, whereas empowering these workers to help themselves by granting them legal status will do wonders.

If Chinese, Korean and Central American immigrant workers were legal like the Vietnamese, they could confront abusive employers, call the police when their wages are being stolen and switch jobs without fear of deportation. A free employee who doesn’t fear the law can defend herself better than any regulator can.

The government can’t regulate health and wage rules in a black market that doesn’t want to be uncovered.

Gov. Cuomo’s call for more enforcement will peter out as soon as the New York Times story fades from memory. In the meantime, more regulatory enforcement will hurt many of the workers it’s intended to help.

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.