In Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and many other Asian languages, the word for America translates to “beautiful country”. It has advertised itself as a land where all can be free as long as you work hard and make a living. When you put it like that, the American Dream sounds so simple.
Key word: s o u n d s
It is, in fact, not that simple. We have spoken a lot about the lies in the food industry, factory farming, and the lies we tell ourselves. The lie I wanted to focus on is the lie that harms billions of people across the globe; we are aware that the habits and hobbies we indulge in are contributing to the exploitation of people from developing countries both at home and abroad but we remain willfully ignorant of those wrongdoings to remain in ignorant bliss.
One group during our podcast assignment decided to research the issue of modern slavery. They had a segment on witnessing a case of modern slavery in a nail salon which they reported. That got me thinking, if something as trivial and yet modern as part of industrialization is not free from unethical practices what else is there and just how widespread is this problem. It inspired to research further.
Lucky for me, my class on slavery brought a certain article to my attention. It was a New York Times expose called “The Price of Nails”. It was an eye-opening piece that took readers through the life of young Chinese woman promised a better life in America but trapped in an endless system of debt via the cruelty of the nail salons that employed her. It almost sounds comical when I hear it aloud, “Evil Nail Salons.” It sounds about as comical as “Captain Underpants,” but the reality is anything but.
No, it was not governments that lured unsuspecting young people from developing countries to take part in cruel and and inhumane industries to fuel the American economy but it was they who turned a blind eye to this exploitation. They decided this was a matter to be pushed further down the line of political leaders to deal because no one likes to get their hands dirty. According to the article, The Korean American Nail Salon Association (the nail salon industry is dominated by Korean-Americans) had the issue of criminally low wages and unsafe conditions brought to their attention but they were afraid that the industry would lose money if they enforced such rules.
When it comes to minor things (taking a pen from the bank, stealing hotel towels, not picking up your trash when you missed the trash can), we are well aware of our shortcomings as Dan Ariely in The Honest Truth About Dishonesty has pointed out. But when it comes to major things (fudging the numbers in a business account because you believe that if you didn’t, everyone in the company would be denied their Christmas bonuses because of you), we come up with all kinds of creative ways to talk ourselves out of trouble. It’s the only way you can be okay with yourself. In the case of chattel slavery, the argument was that this was God’s will and that the poor slaves would be lost without their oh-so benevolent masters. In the case of the nail salons, the owners of the salons say they are doing all they can to help these poor immigrants and having them take wage cuts and pay for their own training is a small price to pay for all the good the salon owner is doing for them.
Similarly, as consumers, we tend to justify our unjustifiable purchases. The expose on nail salons did what any reporter hopes for their work: it brought a movement towards ethical nail salons. The problem has not been eradicated entirely but there was hope as the governor of New York signed into law nail salon regulations soon after the article caused boycotts and protests among workers and consumers alike. Things have gotten every so slightly better. Nail salons, however, are not as commonly indulged in as, say, clothes or makeup or technology. It is more difficult to convince people to give up their iPhones than it is to convince them to give up their manicures. The scope of this issue is so large, what seemed hopeful a minute ago now seems hopeless. So what is to be done here?
As mentioned before, it is unrealistic to get people to suddenly give up everything that was unethically made because it is likely they will be left with nothing but their house and maybe not even that. What is realistic is research. Research, research, and more research! My personal goal is to slowly take the unethical products out of my daily life and find substitutes. It is important to support and reward the companies that are doing good. I don’t know everything I’m supposed to do to (at the very least) keep from contributing to this epidemic (how can I? At this point, my knowledge of the matter is cursory at best) but I know I will keep learning. I cannot fool myself into believing that the cheap clothes that were made by people who are barely paid enough to survive are my only options. I cannot speak for everyone but I am fortunate enough to have the means to buy things that are ethically produced so why shouldn’t I?