The New York Review of Books ran a rebuttal this weekend to the much-talked about New York Times series “Unvarnished,” Sarah Maslin Nir’s yearlong investigation into the horrendous labor practices at many New York nail salons. The rebuttal, written by former reporter and current nail salon owner Richard Bernstein, points out that he thinks things are fine. So. There you go.
The “Unvarnished” series, which you can read in full here, focused both on the exploitatively low wages paid to many workers in the nail industry, particularly undocumented ones, and the hazardous chemicals they work with. Nir said she spoke to 150 nail salon workers, with the help of a team of translators, and pored over numerous help wanted ads for salons.
The piece, which could very well win a Pulitzer, also had an immediate, real-world effect: Governor Andrew Cuomo created an emergency task force to inspect each salon in the city, and a “bill of rights” for salon workers must now be displayed at every one. The aim is to make sure that salon workers aren’t working for low or nonexistent wages as “apprentices,” and that they’re wearing masks and gloves to help reduce their exposure to hazardous chemicals like acrylic powder.
In his rebuttal, Richard Bernstein, who with his wife and sister-in-law, both from China, co-owns what he calls two “modestly-sized” nail salons, focused on those apprentice wages (and not at all on the hazardous chemicals, which he referred to as things that “may be” harmful to workers). Bernstein claimed that those starting wages aren’t nearly as low as Nir reported, and that her “Dickensian” depiction of the nail industry is wrong.
Specifically, Bernstein claimed there’s no way Nir could’ve seen an ad offering a $10 per day starting rate for apprentice workers, accusing her of ignoring “thousands” of ads for better-paying jobs:
Consider one of the article’s primary pieces of evidence of “rampant exploitation”: in a linchpin paragraph near the beginning of the article, the Times asserts that “Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo.” The single example mentioned is an ad by a salon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which, according to the Times, was published in Sing Tao Daily and World Journal, the two big Chinese-language papers in New York, and listed salaries of $10 a day. “The rate was confirmed by several workers,” the story says. Judging from readers’ comments on the Internet, this assertion was a kind of clincher, a crystallization of the story’s alarming message.
And yet, it seems strange, or it should have seemed strange to the paper’s editors, that the sole example the reporter provides of the sort of ad that the Asian-language papers are “rife with” is one that is not even quoted from and for which no date is provided. Indeed, it’s not clear whether the reporter saw the ad at all—otherwise why the caveat “The rate was confirmed by several workers”? (Curiously, while Ms. Nir appears to have visited the salon in question, the story doesn’t say whether the owner of the salon confirmed or denied placing such an ad—or whether that question was even asked.)
On Twitter, Nir said that Bernstein or the NYRB never bothered to contact her, and if they had, she could’ve easily provided the ad in question. And then she provided the ad in question:
The Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo also had a lengthy Twitter rebuttal to Bernstein’s piece, Storified here. Among other things, he points out Fusion and Animal New York both followed with stories that confirmed what the NYT found. And while Bernstein focused on the Department of State’s licensure requirements for nail technicians and their inspections of “appearane enhancement” businesses, he didn’t address the Department of Labor’s own findings. The Times said their analysis of DOL showed that when they investigate a salon “more than 80 percent of the time the agency finds workers have been unpaid or underpaid and tries to recover the money.”
Bernstein also said that at his salon, he and his family offer a starting salary of $70 a day. And if they do it, well, everyone must. And then, immediately after saying that extremely low wages aren’t the industry norm, he also defended the extremely low wages paid to Jing Ren, the 2o-year-old apprentice worker who was one of the main characters in Nir’s story, saying it was all part of her path to “upward mobility:”
Ms. Ren seems to have made a kind of calculated decision. She’s worked for very low wages in exchange for the experience and training she needed to get a better job, and now she has one, perhaps by answering one of the thousands of classified ads ignored by the Times account. Ms. Ren’s cousin and mother, who, we learn at the end of Ms. Nir’s account, also work as manicurists, are likely following the same route. They might also eventually get licenses allowing them to do massage or facial treatments, in which case their pay will go up. If they pool their money, as many immigrant families do, their combined earnings could be several hundred dollars a day or more. This is certainly not affluence by New York standards, but neither is it the “rampant exploitation” that the Times claims to be pervasive and inescapable.
It takes a special kind of analytical mind to see any true upward mobility in a 20-year-old undocumented woman working unpaid for some three months, according to Nir, then making $30 a day. And odd to fixate so intensely, as Bernstein does, on the rates promised in the ads he and his wife examined, as though they’re definitive proof of the wages actually being offered.
Nir, Luo, and NYT Metro editor Wendell Jamieson all defended the series to the Washington Post, with Jamieson calling it “rock rock rock solid.” Jamieson also claimed that Bernstein “harangued” the NYT for weeks, and tried without success to get the New York Post to run his piece before placing it with the NYRB.
Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet is expected to run a longer rebuttal to Bernstein today.
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