10 October, 2003

More than Skin-Deep: An update on the beauty industry


Also published at: http://www.nrn.org.np/medianewsdetail.php?id=77

Millions of women in New York City get their hair and nails done every day. Rushing through hectic schedules, they rarely have time to notice the women bending over the manicures. Increasingly, a large number of these beauty workers originate from Nepal.

"There are an estimated 20,000 Nepali immigrants living in New York City," says Anand Bist, of the Queens based Nepalese Democratic Youth Council. Almost half of them are women. Due to the high demand for childcare, many Nepali women work as baby-sitters and domestic help in wealthier households in Manhattan and New Jersey. The remaining bulk of Nepali women work in the beauty industry.

Mingma Sherpa, 26, works in a pedicure business in the Upper East Side. "I work 6 days a week, for ten hours a day," she says. She gets paid $75 a day, along with tips, which add up to $280 a week. She attended a pedicure school in Flushing in order to get the state license.

An overpowering smell of chemicals wafts by my face in the lobby of the Flushing Nail Academy. On the walls are pictures of graduates on graduation day, scientific charts of nails, and a framed "Nail Gallery". I see the American flag, elaborate flowers, and even a Hello Kitty airbrushed on the plastic nails. A Chinese teacher is showing a class, full of Latinas, how to wrap nails on white plaster casts in fluent Spanish.

Pasang Sherpa, 28, who has worked in the industry for three years, says she is getting a headache from the smell. "My nose has been bleeding during work," she says. Her friend, Dechen Lama, 35, tells me that she used to get nosebleeds as well, but now it has stopped. She says the smell does not bother her anymore. The pedicure business, where workers experience prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals, often does not provide adequate ventilation or masks. Women who spend a long time in the industry frequently develop health problems.

The two women are at the Academy because they need their state license. The state exam which certifies pedicure workers can be given in Korean and English - but is not available in any other language. Nepali women end up paying money to attend the school, but end up not able to take the exam because they are not allowed translators. The women also point out that the exam is far too difficult and does not deal with pertinent subjects - the questions range from obscure medical terminology to the composition of the color white.

Nepalis, working for Korean, Chinese and Indian-owned beauty parlors, often experience discrimination from employers who pay them less based on their national origins and their lack of state certification. Roshana Magar, 42, came to New York City six years ago. Her husband, who had worked in a factory in Korea and could speak the language, negotiated a job from a Korean employer in mid-town. The employer paid her half that of the other Korean employees for the same amount of hours.

Sexual harassment is another problem that women deal with in the beauty industry. Sujata Pandey, 32, a recent arrival from Nepal, found out about this the hard way. After getting a job at the Bombay Saloon in Jackson Heights, she worked for a day on a probationary basis. The employer gave her $40 for the first day. She went home thinking she had a job. The next day, the owner invited her downstairs to the basement, which he had outfitted with a mattress and a VCR, and asked for a massage. When she told him she did not give massages, he fired her. The complete absence of Nepali social service organizations in New York, along with the dismissive attitude of men towards sexual violence, leaves women highly vulnerable to harassment in the workplace.

The beauty industry, in spite of its problems, provides a source of livelihood to Nepali women who come from rural areas, sometimes without basic literacy. The $400-$600 they make every week is crucial for supporting family back home. This money pays for tuition fees for children, living stipends for old parents and tickets for extended family who might be in the process of migrating to the Gulf or North America. Due to the high rate of unemployment, entire families depend on remittances sent from family abroad. For many women, America is not the ultimate destination. Often undocumented, they plan to return home in 5-10 years. Yet, as the years pass, they find themselves in the difficult positions of having experienced financial autonomy, and are unwilling to relinquish it.

Every year, hundreds of men and women gather in Queens for Dashain, the harvest festival which falls around October. Stylishly outfitted, her hair perfectly done, nails shining with a French manicure, Roshana Magar steps on stage to sing songs from her country, and forgets for one night the tiredness of her ten hour day.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of informants.