July 26, 2015

OF COURSE, HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST JOURNALISTS THEY EVER EMPLOYED:

What the 'Times' Got Wrong About Nail Salons (Richard Bernstein, 7/25/15, NY Review of Books)

As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and "mani-pedi" is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article's Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers "spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence," and retire at night to "flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers." Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. "Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found," the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn't correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story's claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based.

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.)

To test the Times's assertion, my wife and I read every ad placed by nail salons in the papers cited in the article, Sing Tao Daily and World Journal. Among the roughly 220 ads posted in each paper in the days after the Times story appeared, none mentioned salaries even remotely close to the ad the Times described. This led me to wonder if embarrassed salon owners might have changed their ads in the short time since the Times exposed them, so we looked at issues of World Journal going back to March this year. We read literally thousands of Chinese-language ads, and we found not a single one fitting the description of the ads that the Times asserts the papers to be full of.

In fact, only a small number of the nail salon ads indicate a salary at all--most simply describe the job on offer and provide a phone number for an applicant to call. Among the few ads that do indicate a salary, the lowest we saw was $70 a day, and some ranged up to $110. Here is one typical example, which appeared in the World Journal on April 23, several weeks before the Times article was published:

QUEENS AREA NAILS
Seeking several large and small work experienced hands. 
Base pay $120 plus tips and commissions.
Small work $70, plus tips and commissions.
Seeking part-time small and large work on weekends.
15 minutes two-way transport Flushing to Elmhurst provided.

The "base pay" in this ad indicates what is known in the business as "large work" salaries--for workers licensed to perform jobs like massage or facial treatments. The "small work" salaries are for manicurists. In our experience, tips and commissions (a percentage of the price for add-on services like massage or special nail finishes) would add between $25 and $50 a day to these figures. A few ads we came across offer higher rates. For example, an ad placed in June by a salon on King's Highway in Brooklyn was labeled "URGENT," and offered jobs at starting salaries of $110 to $130 a day. To attract workers, many ads, like the April 23 one quoted above, promise to provide free transportation from the sort of pickup places where the Times reporter first encountered Ms. Ren, with the ad indicating how long the ride will be. Another ad posted in World Journal that day, for example, says, "Long Island spa needs small work high pay full and part time, 20 minutes pickup from Flushing."


But could it be that the ads indicating salary were not representative? Since most ads do not specify compensation, my wife called a few of the advertising salons at random, speaking Chinese, posing as a salon worker, and asking what the pay would be. The lowest salary she was cited was $70 a day, but the woman she spoke to, who allowed that that salary was "low," quickly added that tips and commissions were "very good" at her salon, which she said was in Upper Manhattan. This conformed to the practice at our own two salons, where we offer starting salaries of $70 a day, plus tips and commissions. My wife has learned that if she is unable to assure her employees that they will earn a total of at least $100 a day, nobody will work for her. On busy days the take home pay can be $150 or more. Of course, even $150 a day does not constitute great wealth. Nonetheless, the classified ads, clearly and unambiguously, reveal the opposite of what the Times claims they do. They show that there is a lively demand on the part of nail salon owners for qualified workers and that the salons need to pay them at least minimum-wage rates to start, plus, in many cases, provide free transportation to and from pickup places in the Flushing Chinatown, to induce them to take the posts on offer.

Needless to say, it is not like The New York Times to get things so demonstrably wrong, or, if it did make a mistake, to show no willingness to correct it. As a former reporter at the paper familiar with its usual close editorial scrutiny of its contents, I was genuinely mystified by this matter of the classified ads, and I wanted to see if there was some explanation for them. And so, two days after part one of the Times exposé appeared, I emailed several senior Times editors, including Mr. Baquet, as well as Margaret Sullivan, the Times's public editor, who represents readers' interests vis-a-vis the editors, pointing out what appeared to be the paper's misrepresentation of the ads. I received cordial replies from editors, but my questions about the ads were ignored, except by Ms. Sullivan who, in an email, told me she had asked Wendell Jamieson, the editor of the paper's Metro Section, about them. Mr. Jamieson told her he had "direct knowledge" of the ads and was satisfied that they had been accurately described. I replied to Ms. Sullivan that I didn't know what Mr. Jamieson meant by "direct knowledge." Ms. Sullivan wrote again, saying that she had had a chance to "clarify" what Mr. Jamieson meant by that term: "that he has reviewed the newspaper ads over the past few days, and he is confident that they were represented accurately in the story."
But these were the very "past few days" during which my wife and I, both of whom can read Chinese, were examining the ads, and the Times description of them was unarguably, incontrovertibly wrong. The Times has neither furnished any copy of the ten-dollar-a-day ad in question, nor identified when it appeared. But even if such an ad did actually appear at some point, the unanswered question would remain: why did the Times reporter, in seeking to portray the whole industry, fail to describe or even mention the numerous, very different kinds of nail salon ads that are easily visible in any of the main Asian-language papers every day? The Times, moreover, seemed curiously incurious about another obvious question: given that there are numerous ads listing salaries of $70 to $110 a day--and salons quoting similar figures when contacted by phone--why would any job seeker answer an ad offering one-seventh or one-eleventh of that amount?

Posted by at July 26, 2015 9:07 AM
  

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