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Nail Biter

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by chris robinson

The nail polishes beckon, pretty little bottles all in a row, annually enticing hundreds of thousands of Canadian women through the doors of salons where a manicure, once considered a luxury, has become a routine grooming ritual, almost as common as brushing teeth.

The allure is mostly financial. Discount nail salons offer mani-pedi packages for as low as $35, at least half of what the combination service would cost in more upscale establishments, leading to a boom in demand. But that cheap price comes at a cost, says Reena Shadaan (BSW ’08, MA ’12), a PhD student in environmental studies at York about to take an in-depth look at the ugly underbelly of the nail care industry, estimated at $5 billion in Canada, according to IBISWorld’s January 2017 Hair & Nail Salons in Canada: Market Research Report.

“Nail technicians face reproductive, respiratory and dermatological issues due to toxic exposures in the workplace, and musculoskeletal issues due to the nature of their work,” says Shadaan, whose thesis will focus on the hidden dangers of nail salons, explicitly the risk they pose to the mostly immigrant women who staff them. “They also experience racial and gender oppression. There are many points of intersection and I intend to apply an environmental justice lens to the health and occupational safety issues common to discount nail salons.”

There are toxic fumes in the air. You don’t have to extrapolate too far to realize that if women are working in these conditions all day, they are being regularly exposed to toxic hazards

A native of Malaysia who came to Canada in 1994 with her mixed Punjabi-Tamil family at the age of eight, Shadaan will work in partnership with advocacy groups, the Healthy Nail Salon Network and the Nail Technicians Network of Ontario, both located in Toronto, when conducting her research. The city is said to be home to an estimated 1,200 salons that employ 10,000 people. Most are newcomers from Vietnam and China who enter the nail care trade often with little knowledge of English, let alone the country’s health and safety laws, making them vulnerable to exploitation, chemical exposures and wage theft. But few have thought to examine their toxic working conditions before.

“The nail industry in Canada is under-regulated, making it easier to exploit this vulnerable group, and it’s difficult to convince regulators, ­policy-makers and the people who could change the conditions in nail salons that there is a problem without good research, and no one has yet collected the data,” says Anne Rochon Ford, who works with Toronto’s Nail Salon Workers Project, an initiative of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, emphasizing why Shadaan’s proposed area of study is being heralded as important.

“They are a group of precarious workers and there are more and more of them coming to Toronto, largely new immigrants whose work conditions aren’t always the best,” continues the former York research associate. “These salons are smelly. There are toxic fumes in the air. You don’t have to extrapolate too far to realize that if women are working in these conditions all day, they are being regularly exposed to toxic hazards.”

It’s a universal problem.

An investigation by British paper Sunday Times in 2013 estimated that there were 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists, mostly illegal migrants, working in Britain under what observers described as slave-like conditions. The exposé led Prime Minister Theresa May, then Britain’s interior minister, to table the Modern Slavery Act, which aims to halt illegal working in risk industries like discount nail care.

In 2015, the New York Times published its own blistering report, this one focused on the estimated 17,000 nail salons spread across the U.S. After interviewing more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, the paper found manicurists to be routinely underpaid and exploited, subjected to ethnic bias and other abuses. The story prompted Andrew Cuomo, then governor of New York, to order a crackdown on nail salons amid allegations that they treat their workers – often undocumented immigrant women – not much better than indentured slaves, it was later reported.

We have already found ways to protect ourselves by eliminating acrylics, for example, and replacing them with gels, which are odour-free and contain less chemicals. But not everyone knows what to do

In Canada, little so far has been written on the hidden dangers of the country’s discount nail salons, especially in academe. Immigrant nail technicians in this country also want change, however, and are hopeful that Shadaan’s initiative will go a long way in providing it.

“Yes, this research is important,” says Demi Tran, owner of the Boutique D’Amour nail salon in downtown Toronto. “Inhaling the chemicals in nail polishes can have a long-term effect on the health of the nail salon workers. My staff is already aware of this, and we have already found ways to protect ourselves by eliminating acrylics, for example, and replacing them with gels, which are odour-free and contain less chemicals. But not everyone knows what to do, which is why a study like this would help.”

Shadaan suspects a wilful blindness on the part of consumers who like getting beauty on the cheap is why change has been slow to come.

“Particularly in Canada, there is an absence of work on the health impacts and concerns of nail technicians due to their work conditions, partly because this kind of labour is deeply racialized, and comprised largely of immigrant women,” says Shadaan, whose proposal to study these women, as well as their work conditions, earned her one of only 10 Canada Graduate Scholarships to Honour Nelson Mandela given to deserving grad students across the country in 2017.

The scholarships award $35,000 over a three-year period to doctoral students whose research is allied with values associated with the late South African leader, chiefly the pursuit of peace, democracy, justice and freedom through advanced learning. The Brampton resident and York grad is determined to put it to good use.

“All my work has been centred around gender and environmental justice,” says Shadaan, citing the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 as a major influence. “I am interested in women, and the impact of toxic exposures on their lives, as well as their right to have children and raise them in healthy environments.” Reproductive justice is a human right, she adds, and no amount of polish can obscure its prominence in her field of research.

“Getting your nails done is part of the self-care narrative, Shadaan says, but who is doing the caring, how are the labour conditions and what are the power dynamics surrounding the caring? These are some of my questions.”

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