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5 Tips to make sure your manicure is ethical

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

How to get a manicure without exploiting the people who give it

"Wow, great price! How did I score such a deal?" The question is music to the American consumers' ears. Next time you say it, though, you may want to think twice before swiping your card.

Exhibit A comes to us from nail salons in New York City. According to a recent exposé in The New York Times about the real costs associated with a bargain mani-pedi, Manhattan's ubiquitous $10.50 manicure is only possible because salon owners gouge workers' pay to drive down prices. Many salon workers earn less than $30 per day, and must pay fees for the right to do so. There are phrases in the English lexicon that can capture what may be occurring in these nail salons — debt bondage, involuntary servitude and perhaps even human trafficking come to mind.

Regardless of the catchphrase we use, we can objectively call the labor practices unjust and exploitative towards vulnerable populations. And as women who consume these services from potentially at-risk women, this is a problem that concerns us all.

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So, how can you ensure that you are purchasing an ethical manicure the next time you hit a salon?

1. Watch for cues

Labor exploitation and human trafficking often have noteworthy signs associated with them. Become familiar with the signs of labor exploitation so you can spot it if you see it occurring at your salon. The Polaris Project has a great overview of the labor exploitation cues you should look for any time and any place in your community.

2. Chat

You may go to a nail salon to relax, but it's important to talk with your manicurist for a few minutes at least. Exploited workers may come across as depressed, fearful or anxious during conversation. And though there are many non-exploited workers who speak little English, an inability to speak English is sometimes a sign of worker exploitation.

3. Remain cautious of tips

Tipping more will not solve the problem if you think labor exploitation is occurring at your salon. The owners will just skim more of the tip, or further reduce wages. In fact, if your salon relies heavily on tipping for worker pay, that's a sign of labor exploitation.

4. Look for postings

Labor laws may vary by state, but it's a good sign if you see United States Department of Labor posters in your salon. These posters contain information for laborers about federal minimum wage and other worker protections.

5. Pay more, go less often

If your salon has suspiciously low prices — prices that you know fall outside the national average or are much lower than other local salons — that isn't a good sign. Pay more for a manicure with average pricing. If you can't afford the higher prices, cut back on your visits.

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As you consider this story, remember that this isn't just a story about manicures and pedicures. The beauty and fashion industries are rife with human trafficking and labor exploitation. Do your research about the source of your favorite products and services before you purchase — and remember that there are often human costs associated with rock-bottom prices.

Finally, if you're ever concerned about labor exploitation or human trafficking, call the Department of Labor hotline for your state or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center for help and resources.

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