If you ever wondered how a manicure could be so affordable in an often-prohibitively expensive city such as New York, here's some less-than-shocking news for you -- the young immigrant workforce employed by nail salons are often severely underpaid, and sometimes not paid at all. 

In a heartbreaking investigation of the nail salon industry, The New York Times reveals massive exploitation of staff by employers, from $100 "training" fees just to start work without pay, to wages of an apalling $30 a day.

And while manicurists are considered tipped workers in NYC (alongside waitstaff and strippers), their earnings frequently fall far below the mandated minimum wage. Worse yet, raises often only come with extra "training," inevitably costing manicurists more in fees.

 NYC's exceptionally high number of nail salons (Image: New York Times via U.S. Census data). Image 1.NYC's exceptionally high number of nail salons (Image: New York Times via U.S. Census data)

The article goes on to describe the poor living conditions of said workers: "Away from the manicure tables they crash in flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers," writes Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, "Beds crowded the living room, each cordoned off by shower curtains hung from the ceiling. When lights flicked on in the kitchen, cockroaches skittered across the countertops."

The industry is also rife with racism, with the mostly-Korean business favoring other Korean workers over Chinese and non-Asian employees. Non-Korean manicurists thus often find themselves on the lowest end of the payscale performing the most undesirable tasks, and report discriminatory practices such as being forced to sit in silence during work and segregated eating areas.

And while salon owners excuse the exploitation with claims of high cost of overhead, Nir points out that these same owners are seen driving expensive cars, bragging about private art collections, and collecting property as if it's a hobby. "Sophia Hong, who owned Madison Nails in Scarsdale, N.Y., prides herself on her art collection, including at least one work by Park Soo Keun, a Korean artist who had a painting sell for nearly $2 million at Christie’s in 2012," Nir writes, "the art hangs in her home in Bayside, Queens, one of several properties she owns, according to property records, including a Manhattan apartment in a luxury building overlooking Columbus Circle."

Despite complaints and numerous class action lawsuits, little has been done by government agencies in response; undercover sweeps of businesses suspected of breaking the law only started investigating nail salons last year, and the Labor Department does little to verify licensure or fair wages.