When The New York Times published a front-page exposé on wage theft at nail salons in May, it rocked the industry.

The piece alleged that thousands of manicurists at New York State's 3,700 salons had had their wages withheld illegally. Furthermore, it stated that "Asian-language newspapers …" such as Sing Tao Daily and World Journal were "rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo".

See also: Dirty secrets of the nail salon exposed

The article, which claimed to have interviewed more than 100 workers in the industry, but quoted few of them, sparked a multi-agency government task force investigation. Subsequently, nail salon owners, most of whom are Chinese and South Korean immigrants, were required to buy a wage bond for staff: meaning if a salon didn't pay the minimum wage, the employee could claim their loss on their insurance.

Richard Bernstein, however, smelled a rat. The former New York Times journalist - who co-owns two nail salons with his China-born wife, Li Zhongmei - put forward evidence in The New York Review of Books that the story was based on "flimsy" data and "sometimes wholly inaccurate information".

For example, Bernstein and his wife reviewed ads in the two Chinese-language newspapers named going back months and found no jobs offering a salary of US$10 a day, as reported. Most offered salaries of US$70, plus tips, with transport costs covered.

I just want the public to know what the Times' story has done to us
Yun Jun Long, who had to close his salon

 

 

Furthermore, The New York Times said that government inspections of salons were virtually non-existent. Yet the New York Department of State told Bernstein that in the 12 months from May last year there had been 5,174 inspections of nail and beauty salons.

In the United States, Asians are often known as the "silent group". Not in this case: angry nail-salon owners held a one-day strike in August, and three protests in front of City Hall and The New York Times headquarters, in Manhattan, in September and October. Each drew hundreds of participants.

Earlier this month, an alliance of salon owners hired a lobbying firm to help them fight the costly new regulations brought in as a result of The New York Times story.

Yun Jun Long is a former nail-salon owner. An immigrant from Dalian, in Liaoning province, he had worked as a masseur at a nail salon before opening his own place two years ago with money borrowed from relatives. His shop was named in The New York Times story for placing a recruitment ad in a Chinese-language newspaper, offering a wage of US$10 per day. Long said the ad made it clear that was a trainee wage.

Nevertheless, Long says, patrons abandoned the shop, which has since closed. He adds that at least six nail salons owned by his Chinese friends faced a similar fate because of the atmosphere created by the article, which told readers there is "no such thing as a cheap luxury".

Now Long is helping to organise protests.

"I just want the public to know what the Times' story has done to us," he says.