Human Trafficking Victims Working in Plain Sight at U.K. Nail Salons

Despite the floundering economy, nail salons are going forth and prospering all across the UK. In the past year, the number of new manicure outlets has increased by 20 percent. Some in the beauty industry have cheerfully — and naively — chalked this up to the makeup being "recession proof." In reality, though, there's truly a far more sinister reason behind the steady increase: according to a recent report by the Sunday Times, nail salons controlled by human traffickers and staffed by human trafficking victims (most of whom are from Vietnam) are becoming ever more prevalent in the UK.

Since 2008, police have raided more than 100 salons across the country and issued salon-owners with fines for employing around 150 "illegal immigrants" — but that's not even close to the tip of the iceberg. Peter Bone, the former chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, states that "the scale [of human trafficking] is enormous, and it's totally hidden." "Enormous" might even be an understatement: industry insiders estimates that there are 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists currently working in the UK. However, according to census data, there are only 29,000 Vietnamese-born migrants living in the country.

The trafficking victims are often expected to do manicures by day and work as prostitutes by night. According to a report published last year by the British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology (BABTAC):

Seemingly legitimate businesses are being used as fronts for brothels, or are staffed by trafficked women and children working for next to nothing... People often assume that trafficking only relates to forced prostitution, but people are also routinely trafficked into forced labour. Some will be forced to work during the day, in plain sight of the public, and in the evening they will be forced into prostitution.

Some are also forced to work in marijuana farms.

This issue is, obviously, not isolated to the UK: according to WGBH Radio, human trafficking rings fronting as nail salons have been discovered in Boston, Springfield, CT, East Orange, NJ, Salem, VA, York, PA, and San Jose, CA — and all of this over the course of the past year.

The face of human trafficking is not always violent and hardly ever far-removed from one's daily life. Human trafficking is directly implicated in — and supported by — the leisure activities of the privileged class. This is not news, really, to anyone: it's fairly common knowledge that the factory workers who create many clothing brands work in dangerous, subhuman conditions on as little as $2 a day. But there's something deeply unsettling (and guilt-inducing) about the thought that there's a chance the woman touching one's hand as she applies a coat of nail polish could be a victim of modern-day slavery.

The BABTAC article has some tips on recognizing and reporting tell-tale signs of human trafficking.

"Nail bars: modern-day slavery in plain sight" [The Guardian]
Image via Africa Studio/Shutterstock.