With Or Without Papers, Indian Beauty Workers Find Work, Freedom In Paris

Indian beauticians occupy a cultural niche in the beauty salons of Paris. This provides vulnerable migrant women an entry into a labour market that is otherwise inhospitable to them

I met Asha, in her 40s, in the metropolitan area of Paris. She had come to France with her husband and their two daughters from Gujarat in 2018 during school break. The family arrived in Paris on a tourist visa but never went back. This was always the plan. 

Asha wanted to migrate to a country in the West to secure her daughters’ future. Although her first choice was the US where she has family, she failed to secure a US visa and opted, instead, for France. At the time of our meeting, Asha and her family had overstayed their tourist visas by several years and continue to live undocumented in France. Asha works in an ‘Indian’ beauty salon on the periphery of Paris. She used to work in a beauty salon in Gujarat as well.

“The friend I was staying with when I came to Paris took me to two places: to a place where as a domestic worker I would have to take care of kids and to a beauty salon. She asked me to pick what I liked. I thought a salon was the best. There is no burden here – you do your work and you take the money. As a domestic worker, you have to look after everything – take care of the kids, clean from top to bottom. Then they [the employers] will also breathe down your neck all day,” Asha said. 

Regardless of their origins, most undocumented migrant women in France end up in domestic work, an informal sector of home-based services such as cleaning and caring for children or elderly people. Women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, have carved out a niche for themselves: Indian beauty salons or salons de beauté Indiens that are scattered all over Paris and its metropolitan area. 

Owned by first-generation migrant women from South Asian countries or of South Asian origin from Mauritius, these salons provide other migrant women an entry into a labour market that is otherwise inhospitable to them. The oldest Indian salon in Paris is about 20 years old but it was only around 10 years ago that the trend picked up and the demand for Indian beauticians grew, as per anecdotal evidence.

Veena from Gujarat has worked as a beautician in Paris for 13 years. She said Indian beauty salons have mushroomed in Paris in the last decade to such an extent that among migrant families, it is much easier for the wife rather than the husband to find work. “Everybody knows that salon work is popular here. If someone from my circle of friends or relatives is about to migrate, I will tell them that it is easy to find beauty salon jobs here. So the woman can learn it [salon work] before moving,” she said.

Finding A Job, Picking Up French

Meeta, a salon worker from West Bengal, told me that she and her husband had arrived in Paris together six months earlier. She had found work in a beauty salon within two months while her husband was still looking for work. Skilled beauticians are purportedly so much in demand that they are never out of work. As Mona, a beautician from Punjab, said: “If you know the work, there will always be work for you. If you leave one salon, you will find work in another.” 

Veena came to France on a family visa after marrying an Indian man with French citizenship, Meeta is undocumented, and Mona’s status has recently been regularised after several years of living undocumented. What is common between them is that their husbands are either unemployed or under-employed. The husbands of Veena and Mona, for instance, work only part-time in fruit and vegetable markets.

Upon migration to France, most working class men from South Asia take up petty jobs in the informal economy such as selling fruit, vegetable and flowers in weekly markets or outside metro stations or working as dishwashers in restaurants. Even those who have the legal right to work find it hard to integrate into the formal economy if they do not speak French. Women, on the other hand, not only find jobs easily in beauty salons but also pick up French at work. 

“In the beauty salon, we receive all kinds of people: working women, homemakers, professionals. So, you learn their language. But you also learn their mannerism which is very important,” said Asha. 

Nearly all the 15 beauticians I spoke with said that they had learnt French at work because of the need to  communicate with clients. They said that learning French would not have been possible in other low-waged jobs such as cleaning or cooking where there is minimal interaction with native French speakers.

‘Indian’ Beauty Salons

The primary service provided in Indian beauty salons is eyebrow threading. In addition, the salons offer manicure, pedicure, body hair waxing, facial and massage. Some of them also offer nail art. Their clientele comprises French women of all ethnicities. The Indian beauty salon can be seen as a cultural enterprise that relies on the construction of eyebrow threading as an ‘ancient Indian’ technique. The cultural export of eyebrow threading is a great demonstration of how migrants become cultural entrepreneurs by taking something that is commonplace in their home culture and selling it as a novelty in the destination society. 

In the ‘Indian’ beauty salon, two parallel processes take place at once: while threading gets constructed as an Indian practice, Indianness is simultaneously constructed through threading. The cultural imagination of India in France is dominated by Bollywood, spirituality and Ayurveda. In keeping with this imagination, the leaflets and the websites of Indian beauty salons rely on Orientalist imagery of sari-clad brown women drawing henna designs on white women’s bodies or giving them a relaxing Ayurvedic massage. 

Indianness thus becomes synonymous with beauty and relaxation which gets commodified in the form of eyebrow threading performed by an ‘Indian’ beautician in an authentic ‘Indian’ setting. The selling of certain beauty services as Indian also includes the production of an Indian ambience in the beauty salon. In many of the Indian beauty salons I visited in Paris, playing Bollywood music, often accompanied by videos on large display screens, was fairly common. 

Besides a small altar with Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Hindu-owned salons, it was also customary to find a big statue of Ganesh or Buddha as part of the salon’s decor. These elements not only contribute to the perceived authenticity of the atmosphere but also deliver a whole cultural fare to the French customer besides the beauty service.

This kind of cultural stereotyping is deployed strategically by salon owners to build and sustain an “ethnic” niche in the labour market. Just like Chinese manicurists and Thai masseuses, Indian eyebrow threaders are an emerging ethnic niche in the international labour market. Although ethnic niches are based on both gendered and racial stereotypes, they also allow migrant women to determine the value of their labour in potentially empowering ways.

Creating Demand For An Ethnic Niche

Using the case study of Vietnamese manicurists in the US, Susan Eckstein and Thanh-Nghi Nguyen (2011) have provided an excellent account of how ethnic niches are formed and sustained. An ethnic niche is formed when people of one ethnicity are overrepresented in an occupation. A migrant group may carve out a sector of the labour market for themselves — even with little political and economic power, formal education and command over the local language — by creating demand for their labour.

Such an ethnic niche is then sustained by ongoing migration from the sending country that provides a continuous source of cheap labour. New arrivals join the niche when they consider the line of work to be attractive compared to the options available to them in the destination country. The fact that employment in the ethnic niche often requires little to no formal training compared to other lines of work also contributes to its attraction. 

The first and foremost qualification needed to work in an Indian beauty salon is for the beautician to look ‘Indian’. Indianness acts as a form of embodied capital that marks the beautician as authentic and desirable in the eyes of the French customer. In this process, however, the brown body gets marked as ‘Indian’. The worker could be from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Nepal, but the usage of the word ‘Indian’ reassures the client of their authenticity. While salon owners are happy to display ‘Indian’ on their signboards, not all workers are happy with this kind of homogenisation. 

“Why do they write ‘Indian salon’?” said Nishat from Bangladesh. “Maybe because India is more famous. It has become the tradition to call such salons Indian. But I have thought that if I ever open a salon, I will call it Bangladeshi, or I won’t open one at all. I also want my country’s name to be known.”

‘I’ve Begun To Believe In Myself’

Mona, in her late 30s, lives in Paris with her husband and three children. In her village in Punjab, it was not usual for women to participate in paid employment. Beauty work, in particular, was not considered reputable. “They consider salon work galat kaam (shameful work),” she said. “Even my husband didn’t want me to learn this work. But I somehow managed to learn.”

As a young man, Mona’s husband was driven by poverty to migrate from his village in Punjab to Italy. Although he had a visa for Italy, he chose to live in Paris as an undocumented migrant selling clothes sourced from India. However, after his marriage with Mona, he moved back to Italy in order to be able to bring her over to Europe.

Mona went to Italy in 2007 and lived there for six years during which time she had three children. But when her husband lost his job, she moved back with her children to her parents’ home in Punjab. Her husband moved back to Paris and tried looking for work while living undocumented. When he did not succeed, Mona decided to take matters in her own hands. 

Although she had never used her training in beauty work either in India or in Italy, she knew that her skills could be put to test in France. So, in 2015, she travelled to Paris alone, leaving her three children behind in the care of her parents. There she  approached beauty salons and left her phone number with them. This is how she got her first job in a beauty salon owned by a Sri Lankan woman. For two years, she worked very hard in this salon to stabilise her family’s financial condition. 

Those two years without her children were painful for Mona. Recalling that time, she said, “Only a mother can understand the pain [I felt]. Every day, every moment, all I thought about was my kids. Even now when I think back to that time, I feel like crying. My younger son was two-years-old when I left him and came here. Even now he says to me, ‘Mamma, why did you leave me behind?’”

When she had saved enough money, she sent for her children. “I tell my son that had I not come to Paris, he could not have had this life. I say: ‘I was forced by circumstances to leave you behind. But now I have called you here, haven’t I?’ Now we are all together and our situation is good too.” 

While Mona’s husband works part-time in fruit and vegetable markets, Mona works full-time in a salon owned by a Mauritian woman of Indian origin in the centre of Paris. 

“When I got my first salary, I was so happy. I felt that even I was worth something. Before this, I never had faith in myself. But now, I have begun to believe in myself. That I can do anything I want,” she said. 

For women like Mona, their new-found financial independence and confidence is also accompanied by their husbands’ willingness to share housework. Back in Punjab, Mona’s mother-in-law and brother-in-law humiliated her husband when he tried to help her in the kitchen. But in Paris, he does his share of cooking and cleaning without hesitation, leading to a greater sense of freedom and equality in the couple’s day-to-day lives. 

Mona and her husband have recently managed to regularise their status under the right to a private family life. In France, it is possible to apply for a residence permit if a family has been in the country for at least five years and can prove that their children have attended school for three years. 

Vulnerability, Exploitation

Pooja, in her 40s, is from Nepal and works in a beauty salon on the outskirts of Paris. She learnt beauty work after she had made up her mind to migrate to France. Her sister who used to live in Paris at the time suggested that she learn beauty work to find employment. In Nepal, Pooja used to work with an agency assisting labourers migrating to Gulf countries. Although she had a decent income, her decision to migrate to France was spurred by a desire for a better life for herself and her children after her separation from her husband. 

“Everybody wants a good life. For a good life, you need to earn money. You can’t get this kind of a salary in Nepal. I have two sons. It was okay – paying for their education, rent. But I wanted to earn better so that they could go to a better school. I also wanted to live the European life,” she said.

In 2015, Pooja left her children in the care of her sister and her mother and came to France. While she originally overstayed her tourist visa, her plan was to apply for regularisation of status based on five years of residence in France and proof of continued employment at a beauty salon. For this, she had to be loyal to her employer, pay taxes and collect her tax receipts. However, her dependence on the salon owner for regularisation left her highly vulnerable to exploitation. Although French labour law stipulates a 35-hour workweek , Pooja normally worked 60 hours a week with only one day off. Although her contract includes paid leave, the salon owner never let her take time off. Pooja could neither protest nor quit her job as she depended on her employer’s goodwill for a residence permit. 

Pooja, however, is not the only one facing exploitative conditions at work. Typically, the working hours in Indian beauty salons are 10 am to 8 pm, with most employees getting only one day off in a week. The terms are decided by the salon owners, most of whom are migrant women who had started off as beauticians themselves. In an ethnic niche, migrant entrepreneurs often take advantage of cheap co-ethnic labour, especially when co-ethnics have few options and little knowledge about workers’ rights in the new country.

Before hiring, salon owners often ask for long unpaid trials – these could range from a few days to a few weeks — following which they offer jobs at very low wages. New migrants, particularly those who do not have much training or experience in beauty work, agree to wages much lower than the minimum wage in France. 

Salon owners take a risk by employing undocumented migrants as it could invite a penalty of €15,000 per worker, if discovered. Their businesses could also be temporarily or permanently closed down. They are often motivated by the money they can save by not declaring the worker to fiscal authorities (hence, avoiding taxes and social security contributions) as well by paying lower wages. If the worker insists that they be declared to the fiscal authorities so that they can collect proof of employment, they become beholden to the salon owner who demands complete loyalty from them. Moreover, the employee residence permit is only valid for one year and its renewal is contingent on continued employment which could lead to further vulnerability and uncertainty for the worker. Although France has a strong history of collective organising by undocumented workers with the help of trade unions, South Asian beauticians remain unaware of it as yet. 

In 2023, Pooja’s application for regularisation on the basis of employment was rejected. She continues to work at the same salon. In her ninth year of living in France, she continues to be undocumented which means that she has not been able to visit her family ever since she left. She has, however, been able to send her two children abroad for higher education with the money she was able to save by working as a beautician in Paris.

Women Migrants As Risk Takers

In migration scholarship, women are largely understood as ‘at-risk’ but not as risk takers. But in the course of this study, I met numerous South Asian women who had taken enormous risks not only in migrating to France independently but also in doing so without the right papers. For some, like Mona, it was out of need. For others, like Pooja, it was fuelled by the desire for a better life. 

I met Rashida from Bangladesh who had wanted to come to France with her husband after both their families refused to accept their love marriage. While she got a visitor visa, her husband didn’t. So she travelled to France alone and applied for asylum upon arrival. Now she is waiting to bring her husband to France while working in a beauty salon, a job that has given her a tremendous sense of freedom. 

Then there was Sarabjeet from Punjab who migrated on her own and continues to live undocumented in her seventh year in Paris while working as a beautician, just because “it was my dream to go to France”. 

The knowledge that beauty work will be available to them upon arrival informs many a South Asian woman’s decision to take the route of irregular migration to France. This knowledge, passed down by family and friends, is always partial and exposes them to exploitative working conditions and the risks of living undocumented. Irregular migration is always a gamble; while some are able to get a residence permit after five years of living in France, others live perennially in fear, neither able to go back nor secure full rights as a resident. Deportation, although a real possibility, is rare. 

In either case, beauty work leads to socio-economic gains by providing an opening into a labour market that is otherwise highly restricted for migrants who do not speak French, with or without papers. Beauty work also helps them acquire knowledge of French and French culture, communication skills and self-confidence. As Mona remarked after speaking to me, “Chalo, now I have even learnt how to give interviews. Believe me, I didn’t even know how to talk to people before I came here.” 

*All names have been changed to protect identities. 

This article draws on a short study conducted with the help of a grant from the Centre Maurice Halbwachs in Paris and Dr Christelle Avril.

  • Nandita Dutta is a researcher whose work focuses on gender, migration, work, and climate change in South Asia. She is the author of the book 'F-rated: Being a Woman Filmmaker in India'.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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