Beauty in Their Hands

California Neglects Entire Labor Demographic

By Anastasia Le


Thuy Thanh Trinh coats deftly trimmed nails with polish at her station. Photo Credit: Anastasia Le.

Long hours away from their families, dangerous workplaces that cost them their health, a career choice they would come to regret — this is the story many Vietnamese women share in their search for the American dream.

Thuy Thanh Trinh is a nail technician with 26 years of experience working in Bay Area salons. She attended cosmetology school for a viable source of income in a job field that required little spoken English.

Trinh came to the U.S. at 18 with her family: “My life was so hard in Vietnam; not enough money. I needed to provide for my two siblings,” Trinh told The BCC Voice.

Trinh initially didn’t adjust well to chemical fumes in the salon. In the first 10 years of her career, Trinh went from healthy to “skinny, tired, and sick,” and is unsure if this was due to daily exposure to chemicals since linked to health concerns such as irritated skin, asthma and cancer.

“Who knows, maybe I’ll die early,” wonders Trinh, “my doctor says I’m fine, but maybe I had problems earlier in my life because of the chemicals.”

Nail salon workers experience a spectrum of health concerns, and few have received answers. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was created in 2005 by Asian Health Services to address the health needs of the nail salon community. They sponsor legislation for safer and improved working conditions, in addition to providing language accessible materials.

Jamie Liou is the co-founder and director of the Collaborative who oversees the group of 20 organizations across the state. The Collaborative has an established Research Advisory Committee and is focused on policy, outreach and education. They hold bimonthly workshops with the goal of presenting a holistic model of rights to nail salon workers.

“I’m always inspired by our community members,” Liou said. “They’ve been so brave coming forward and enacting change through their experiences…we’re here to give them that support.”

The Collaborative recently worked on Assembly Bill 2125, sponsored by California Assemblyman David Chiu, to ban the “toxic trio,” toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate, from workplace chemicals. Out-of-state chemical and beauty industry lobbyists came to California to testify against technicians’ claims of potentially life-threatening effects from exposure.

“They would say, ‘Where’s the evidence?,’ and the answer is that everyone in the nail salon community is aware of this issue,” Liou said.

Liou described the Collaborative’s journey as an uphill battle, with opposition from chemicals companies, salon owners, and technicians alike.

“[The nail salon owners and technicians] thought we were ruining their industry…it took a long time to build trust,” Liou said.

The Collaborative struggles with finding funding and participants who want to advocate for nail salon workers’ rights. Liou suggests they need to work towards building trust, worker initiative and attaining a cultural shift from consumers.

“The profit margins are so low and the competition gets difficult,” Liou said, “it’s a vicious cycle because owners are scared they’re going to lose their customers.”

There are no mandated breaks where Trinh currently works. When there are no customers to attend to, she eats. When the salon is busy, she doesn’t.

Trinh’s working conditions have not changed in her three decades sitting at her nail station. She does not see her situation or the nail salon industry changing in her lifetime.

“Vietnamese salons don’t really have vacations. If something could change, I wish I could have vacation time or sick leave,” Trinh said.

Many women such as Trinh found independence through their careers. Some went on to own their own salons. Most could raise a family in the Bay Area. Trinh can support her family as a nail technician. She and her husband are currently supporting their three children’s educations.

“I wish I could be 18 again. I wish I had the chance to go to school. When I was a teenager I worked and worked and worked…but now I’m getting old, and I have lived my life. It’s better than my life in Vietnam,” said Trinh.

“As immigrant women in a service industry, a lot of people look down on them. We promote their stories and honor their workers and their experiences and their service. It’s something they’re proud of: their workforce contributions,” Liou said.

“I want to take care of my customers. I love seeing the beauty in their hands,” Trinh said.

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