Modern Slavery and Nail Bars: The Dark Side of the Salon Industry


Statistically, nail bars are the most popular businesses run by UK Vietnamese community members. With their too-good-to-be-true prices and walk-in convenience, they are popping up all over the high street and growing at an astronomical rate. In fact, research by the Royal Mail found that more beauty salons opened in 2o16 than any other kind of independent business. But equally, we have also seen a rapid growth in levels of labour exploitation in these types of establishments.

A 2017 report by independent UK organisation Anti-Slavery Commissioner found that of the 198 confirmed victims of modern slavery, 15 of these individuals were exploited in a nail bar. But these statistics, although shocking in themselves, barely scratch the surface of the magnitude of the problem. Anti-slavery charity Unseen UK reported in 2018 that there were in fact 477 potential victims of modern slavery in nail bars – making them the second biggest concern, behind car washes, for helpline callers in terms of labour exploitation.

Why nail bars?

The trouble with nail bars is that it isn’t compulsory for them to be regulated or licensed. Although organisations like the Association of Nail Technicians include a code of conduct, joining them is voluntary. The result of this lack of regulation is that human traffickers and victims are able to hide in plain sight, as it means that nail technicians needn’t undergo any kind of background checks before they are hired, making it easier than ever for these businesses to employ undocumented, untrained migrants without any kind of ramifications.

This lack of regulation means that a lot of these salons are also able to be cash-only; this, coupled with the growing demand for business in the UK, makes it the perfect location to launder money from other forms of organised crime like prostitution rings and cannabis farms.

Case studies

During the UK’s first nail bar prosecution, of Bath’s Nail Bar Deluxe in 2017, one of the charges was related to money laundering, with investigators finding cash in excess of £60,000. Two Vietnamese girls, who had been smuggled in to the UK in the back of the lorry, were found to be victims of modern slavery at this nail bar. They both worked 60 hours a week, and whilst one of them was paid £30 a month, the other wasn’t paid at all, and slept on a mattress in the nail bar owner’s attic. The owner and two accomplices were subsequently found guilty of conspiring to facilitate the movement of people for labour exploitation, but the case didn’t stop there. The nail bar in Bath was found to be the tip of the iceberg in a much larger network of trafficking and slavery, with Somerset Live reporting that related arrests were subsequently made in London, Staffordshire and Cheltenham.

The Anti-Slavery Commissioner report also found that in one case of modern slavery, the individual worked all day until 6/7pm seven days a week for just £30 per week.  The report also cited a case where a male Vietnamese minor (the most common type of person to be trafficked according to statistics) was trafficked from Vietnam to Russia, and then to the UK. He was locked in a room and forced to train to paint nails before he was taken by traffickers to find work in nail bars. He worked five days a week in two different salons, but was transported to and from the nail bars each day and locked away when he wasn’t working. The salons in this case were legitimate businesses, and they paid the victim £6.50 an hour. However, he was then forced to give this money to his traffickers. He was quoted in the Anti-Slavery Commissioner report saying that, ‘at the time I thought the people from the nail bar were the same as the guys I stayed with in the house so I was afraid to tell them [what was happening]and I thought I would be beaten.’  This in turn goes to show that businesses can harbour victims of modern slavery without even knowing it, with some traffickers controlling their victims from a distance.

Why isn’t more being done?

Tragically, some victims of trafficking may not even realise they are being exploited. A lot of undocumented migrants find themselves in a modern slavery ring after paying a people smuggler to organise a job for them and their journey to the UK, and unwittingly become part of a trafficking ring in the process.

Victims of exploitation are often also unwilling to co-operate with the police for two primary reasons. Firstly, they are so terrified of their traffickers and what they might do to them that they do not feel open to talk about their experiences. Secondly, they are acutely aware of their own status as an illegal immigrant, and so are reluctant to report any mistreatment they experience in case this is discovered.

Furthermore, despite the Modern Slavery Act 2015 being implemented to stop these kinds of exploitation, it’s effectiveness is limited by the lack of funding being invested into the issue. This in turn means that police officers and other authorities have neither the training nor the resources to appropriately identify and help victims of modern slavery, which means that a large number of people continue to suffer after failing to be detected or helped in the right way.

How can I tell if a nail bar is practising modern slavery?

Unseen UK’s ‘Let’s Nail It’ campaign aims to raise awareness of modern slavery in nail bars by educating people on red flags and warning signs that people are being exploited. Things to look out for include:

  • An overbearing manager/owner that directly takes the money, appears to frighten the employee and speaks for them when you ask them a question.
  • Employees appearing disheveled, withdrawn and unwilling to make eye contact.
  • Employees who are all brought to work at the same time or appear to live in the salon.
  • Employees seeming younger than you’d expect, frightened by the presence of their manager and not being able to speak English (this makes them more vulnerable).
  • The salon being cash only and having too-good-to-be-true prices.

Overall, if your gut tells you something isn’t right and the atmosphere is unsettling or uncomfortable, it is better to be safe than sorry. It is important that you don’t voice your suspicions to the worker or manager directly, as this can lead to them being re-trafficked to a different location. Instead, call the Modern Slavery Hotline with your suspicions at 08000 121 700. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.


Wessex Scene Editor // meme queen // fan of chocolate digestives // @colombochar on Twitter.

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