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Wouldn’t It Be Loverly: Audrey Hepburn, Nail Salons And How To Help Women

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As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, nail salons across the country are under scrutiny for abusive labor tactics and human trafficking. New York City has taken a hard look at this issue (thank goodness!) and is considering implementing some not-so-well-thought-out policies. Included in this are:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo invoking “emergency measures,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) citing federal legislation on product safety she’s introduced and of course New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio presiding over a “day of action.” The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute declares nail salon abuses a function of “national policy failures.”

This approach wants to crack down on salon licensing, shutting down those that are not toeing the line. But will this really help the women being overworked and underpaid? William McGurn doesn’t think so. He also thinks Audrey Hepburn – My Fair Lady – has some answers.

Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle is a hard-scrabble girl trying to get buy selling flowers on the street. Professor Henry Higgins happens upon her, and graciously/pompously offers to help her with her “curbstone English,” thus improving her chances of getting a better job. McGurn:

The next morning, Eliza appears at Professor Higgins’s doorstep to hire him to teach her English because she wants to be “a lady in a flow’r shop, ’stead of sellin’ at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.” He accepts.

Note the assumptions. Eliza didn’t place her hope in new regulations for street-side flower mongering. For Eliza, upward mobility was about acquiring the skills she needed to get ahead, in this case proper English and the manners that went with it.

How different this is to the approach to nail salons now being worked out in New York and Washington. Like so many other bursts of progressive passion, chances are that while their bid for more government will make the pols and activists feel better about themselves, it will do little to improve the lives of these women.

It’s great that attention is being brought to the horrid conditions many nail salon workers endure. However, short-sighted policies and knee-jerk reactions won’t help the women or solve the problem. These women still won’t have marketable skills outside of the industry they are currently in and they’ll be out of work. What then? They will likely fall prey to yet another immoral person, willing to take advantage of them.

Wouldn’t a simple guest worker program help those here illegally more than a higher minimum wage? Likewise, wouldn’t a concerted effort that helped these women learn English do more for their opportunities in life than enforcing paid sick leave? Come to think of it, wouldn’t a rapidly growing economy creating jobs give them more avenues of escape from an abusive boss than piling more regulations onto an already sluggish economy?

In the end, the only real leverage a worker has over a boss is her ability to tell him where to get off—secure in the knowledge that she has other opportunities. Which is exactly what Eliza Doolittle does at the end, when she’s acquired the English and manners that mean she no longer has to put up with the bullying of Professor Henry Higgins.

Higgins desire to help Eliza is wholly self-serving; he wants to prove he can take a street urchin and move her into high society. However, it was Eliza who had to do all the work. Let’s not make recreate the  sanctimonious misdeeds as Higgins; instead, let’s think through what will truly help salon workers in the long term.

Read “Audrey Hepburn Teaches Economics” at The Wall Street Journal.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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