Today in New Delhi, India
Nov 17, 2018-Saturday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Grime behind the gloss

Pretty nails from the city’s mushrooming nail salons may come at an ugly cost — dismal work conditions for the mainly North-eastern girls employed in them. Zofeen Maqsood reports.

lifestyle Updated: Sep 08, 2013 02:41 IST
Zofeen Maqsood
Zofeen Maqsood
Hindustan Times
nail bars,labour,illegal migrants

While the high-octane world of fashion and glamour may fascinate many, for years, fashion has also suffered a bad rep for insensitivity. And despite the occasional cries for humane practices, Delhi has been known notoriously for its fashion sweat shops and unethical practices.

Of late, the new fad of nail bars that promise fancy manicures and nail art fit for a Manhattan soirée seem to be new hotbed of unfair labour practices.

Ironically a trip to a nail bar — meant to act as a stress sponge for the city’s well-heeled female customers — comes with behind the scenes story of nightmarish horror tales of those who polish your talons.

Read: Life in a nail bar

Last month, an article titled ‘Beauty and the Beasts’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, UK, exposed the dismal working conditions that exist beneath the surface in some of the UK’s plush nail bars.

The article reported that often these nail bars employ illegal migrant girls from Vietnam to work in deplorable conditions.

While there may be some evidence to support the claim as the report talks about more than 100 police raids since 2008, for employing about 150 illegal immigrants, the industry insiders estimate the number to be around 100,000 — much higher than reported.

Closer home in India, with nail art having taken off globally and the concept of nail bars having caught up, pit-spots promising glossy nails are coming up in posh malls — and, lamentably enough, industry experts point out, we may be already heading towards another parallel culture of exploitation and unfair treatments, in this case towards the mostly North eastern girls who find employment in the city’s mushrooming vanity joints.

Neha Khanna, beauty advisor, Avon India, who has closely worked in the interiors of North east India imparting beauty training to young girls says, “Girls from North east are sought after in salons, spas and particularly nail bars across India as most of them are presentable, English speaking, well-groomed and naturally inclined towards beauty — the requisites that qualify you for a nail bar job.

But the rewards these girls reap are highly skewed in terms of equal pay and dignity of labour.”

A 2011 project report on North east Migration and challenges released by North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH) revealed that 78% of North eastern population in Delhi is subject to humiliation because of their appearance.

The report also estimates that about 35% of North east migrants migrate for employment opportunities in other cities of India. While only 15% end up in govt. jobs the rest 85% go for unorganised private sector jobs.

Half of these migrants are girls, according to the report, and it’s no surprise that a majority ends up working in beauty establishments. Experts claim nail bars are increasingly becoming the preferred choice for these girls also because nail technicians requires a basic technical learning, which most girls from north or south India are not inclined towards.

A nail bar — a specialty beauty establishment that offers nail care services such as manicures, pedicures, nail art and nail extensions — is a ubiquitous concept in global cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong, with state governments offering technical qualification and federal governments doling out funds to help these salons as small enterprises (According to in 2012, the federal government in US spent a total of $109,000 on nail salons).

On the contrary the market in India remains largely unstructured and disorganised. This, reveal industry insiders, works as an aid to promote the practice of draconian working conditions.

According to experts the girls are made to work in poorly ventilated places and often advised not to wear masks as it may offend the customers.

Dr Anup Dhir, senior cosmetic surgeon, Apollo Hospital says, “Working in a poorly ventilated atmosphere with invisible nail dust in the air is like exposing one to an asbestos mine. You can get serious respiratory diseases. Also if the tools used are not sterilized it can expose you to a variety of infections . I doubt if these girls are made to undergo health-check ups ever.”

(None of the girls we spoke to for this feature had a health check-up).

A 2012, Price Waterhouse Coopers/ FICCI report said that the Indian beauty market worth between Rs 230-245 billion is growing at 20 to 25% annually.

Experts say, just as in Europe, nail salons in India too are experiencing a steep rise even in the times of bad economy.

A Nielson and IRI research says in Europe mass market the nail polish sales grew nearly twice as fast as the overall makeup market, up to 29% between 2007 and 2010.

The rise of the beauty industry in India has provided as an easy and attractive vocation for a large number of Northeastern girls. Pammi Lal, who set up Bio sculpture nails in the country after working in the nail industry for a decade in UK says, “While earlier a lipstick was the quintessential cosmetic indulgence today it is a glossy manicure.”

Shikhar Malhotra, a trained beauty expert from Hertfordshire, UK who set up Esparanza spa in the capital says, that unlike in the west, there is an absence of checks.

“Here there are no licenses required to open up a beauty establishment. To set up a nail bar all you need is a shop establishment certificate from MCD.”

He further adds, “The fanciest of the nail bars in the country do not have any hygiene standards or fire exits. There are absolutely no periodic checks on salons unlike in restaurants. Naturally in such fluid working conditions, the staff suffers the most.”

To add insult to injury, many of the girls said that customers also are impolite (see case studies) and the pay-structure is dismal.

Pammi Lal, says, “Nail extensions and nail art is a specialised vocation but still many salons make do with girls who have little professional training. Obviously they are paid a pittance.”

Throughout UK and USA, the district laws require nail technicians to have formal, state recognised qualification in order to grant licenses to the salon. Malhotra says, “In India there are no such standards. CIBTAC — an advance course of beauty certification is considered a professional qualification but it’s expensive and costs over Rs 1.5 lakhs for six months. With no easy access to any state scholarships or aids most girls from North east prefer learning on the job.”

A starting salary in a small to mid segment nail bar ranges between Rs 5000-6000, if you have a technical training certificate that can go up to Rs 10,000-15,000 but still it is less compared to local girls from Delhi or Mumbai who are employed.

Beauty trainer Neha Khanna looks at the other side of the spectrum too. She says, “A lot of compromised rates are also because girls from North east agree to work in low salary brackets. If one girl leaves you will find five others ready to work in even lower salaries.”

Malhotra thinks that it’s a double-edged sword. “Often the girls are asked to put in punishingly longer hours, under the excuse that they have no family here to go back to and even the girls don’t mind leaving even for a R 1000 raise elsewhere.”

Beauty practitioners feel that the situation will not improve till the public starts perceiving these girls as professionals.

Lal says, “Often you will see that even during a 2-3 long hour procedure there is little or no interaction between the client and the technician. The poor girls are regarded as lesser mortals.”

First Published: Sep 08, 2013 01:48 IST