The real cost of a manicure
During her 12 years as a nail technician, Alice remembers hoping for sunny weather. Working at salons all over Toronto, she shared her commission with the owners she worked for – typically 50/50, but sometimes forced to take 30 percent while the salon pocketed the rest. The winter months were often unbearably slow. The high season was during the holidays and, above all, during the sunny summer days.
In 2009, after years of jumping from salon to salon, Alice landed her ideal job: a salon where her salary was guaranteed, even though she had no clients that day. While the hourly rate barely exceeded the minimum wage, it was stable and she loved her boss. She worked there for ten years, until it was sold in 2019. Then, at the age of 58, Alice found herself where she started when she arrived in Toronto from China a decade earlier, working for part of its commission.
Newcomers like Alice (who only uses her first name for fear of professional reprisal) are the backbone of Toronto’s ubiquitous nail salons. Most are considered self-employed by salons, but not by choice. This means they receive reduced income, but no benefits, job security or T4. With limited Canadian work experience and English, it also means a massive power imbalance that has made many salon techs silent victims of labor exploitation.
Alice first moved from China to Toronto with her husband and son in 2004, hoping for better educational opportunities for their son.
In China, Alice had been an accountant and her husband worked with computers. When they immigrated, however, her husband could not find employment in his field. Alice’s own English was not good enough for an accountant job. Instead, her first two jobs in Canada were in a lumber mill and a CD manufacturing plant – strenuous work lifting heavy objects all day that left her exhausted every night. In 2006, a friend suggested that she find work as a nail technician.
At a salon in a plaza in McCowan and on Highway 7, she paid homeowners $ 200 to learn nail polish, a common practice. After the training, she started working, earning a 30 percent commission while the salon kept 70 percent, earning about $ 3 for each $ 12 manicure without receiving an hourly wage. If her boss wasn’t happy, said Alice, she would only give Alice one customer a day, even if she had to stay 9-10 hours.
To get to the salon each morning, Alice took several buses, transferring from Toronto to Markham. Tips were sparse and it was complicated to separate them when one nail technician was working on one client’s manicure and the other was working on a pedicure at the same time. His boss would also take a share. Some days Alice didn’t even earn enough to cover the $ 8 bus fare.
Alice left the first salon after three months. But the next nail salon she worked at wasn’t much different.
According to data from the Government of Canada’s Job Bank, as of December 2019, approximately 9,540 people were working as nail technicians and estheticians in Toronto. There are hundreds of salons in the GTA, ranging from discount to premium services. And it’s a growing business. Despite being hit hard by the pandemic, according to a report by market research firm IBISWorld, the hair and nail salon industry in Canada is expected to grow 3.8% to $ 5 billion in Canada. over the next five years.
At discount salons, services start at $ 20 for a manicure or $ 35 for a manicure and pedicure, a bargain that is usually expensive for workers. In high-end salons, a manicure can cost over $ 100.
Job Bank cites $ 15 an hour as the average salary for nail technicians in the Toronto area. But in Alice’s experience, most salons in Toronto operate on a 50/50 salary commission model in which the nail technician receives a T4A, which means they are independent contractors. without social benefits or sick pay from their employers.
“At first they don’t pay you,” says Jackie Liang, a former nail technician who is now an outreach worker with the Nail Technician’s Network (NTN), a group formed in 2013 out of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Center. to educate and support nail salon workers. Instead, workers receive tips at home as they develop their skills. Eventually, she says, the salon where she worked paid her $ 60 plus tips for a seven-hour, part-time day. It has never been guaranteed hours. When there were no clients, she was told to go home.
Many workers are paid in cash, explains Yiman Ng of NTN. Paying in cash is legal, but Ng says many employers don’t provide pay stubs. “In general, the employer wants workers to be self-employed so they don’t have to contribute,” she says.
Not having a pay slip can have devastating effects: preventing workers from receiving government assistance and limiting their ability to sponsor family members who wish to come to Canada because they are unable to prove a certain level of returned. It also affects the ability of workers to retire, since employers do not pay their share into the CPP. For undocumented workers, who are paid illegally, being kept away from the books also meant they could not access the CERB during the lockdown, when all lounges were ordered to close. .
For many immigrant nail technicians, working in a city where the language barrier prevents them from finding more stable work, life in Toronto can seem like a trap. But leaving their new country, they say, is not a real option.
“We decided to go to another country,” Liang said. “It’s hard to go back. It is not an easy decision. You are already there.
“Many parents sacrifice themselves for their children,” she adds.
“Once you move to another country, we’re talking about several years, you’re exposed to new things,” says Ng. “Your core values will change. And if you go back there, you just don’t feel like you belong. “
During the pandemic, the nail industry was one of the hardest hit industries. The salons were closed and the workers scrambled. The Nail Technicians Network asked unemployed technicians to document their lives locked out with photos – a way for workers to process their feelings of being out of work and a way to connect with others who were in the same situation. Some photos showed workers quarantined with their families. Others showed them at work in new trades, in restaurants or on farms.
In Toronto, the surviving salons reopened in late June. “It’s going to be very interesting to see how many [workers] return to the industry, ”says Ng.
Many salons closed permanently during the pandemic. Customers who couldn’t access the salons learned how to do their own nails.
Chris Dinh, 21, who moved to Toronto three years ago with his family, worked at Rosy Nails on the Danforth before the pandemic. During the lockdown, while shopping at a nail supply store with his sister, who is also a nail technician, he saw customers shopping for their own nail supplies. Dinh decided to stop working as a nail technician and now works at the salon reception, speaking with customers in the hopes of improving her English enough to one day work as a barista at Starbucks.
Alice also moved on. She now works for the T&T grocery chain where she cooks food. Working at the store, where she is away from the public, feels safer than working in a living room during the pandemic. And she’s happy to break free from the commission-based model.
She only started her job a few months ago and is not sure if she will stay or try to return to work in the salons. Fifteen years after his arrival, his future is more uncertain than ever.
At least part of his plan has come true. Her son, now in college, is studying cardiology. “I’m so happy,” she says. “That’s why I came to Canada.