Trafficking in Nail Salons


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Have you ever thought what the days looked like for the men and women who assist us at our local nail salons? Have you ever thought what it really means to spend your days polishing a stranger’s nails? After a good hour or so getting pampered and massaged, we resume back to our own chaotic lives. We’re happy because our gel-nails never looked so good, and the manicurist seems happy because we left a generous tip – in cash. Their lives must be pretty simple, right?  

Simple, yes. Pretty, no. 

Working as a manicurist may sound like a simple job: no big conference meetings, no important papers. But sometimes, the jobs aren’t as pretty as they may appear – especially when workers are living under poor labor conditions.

Research has shown that nail salon workers, many who are Vietnamese, are immigrants and refugees who have fled from an oppressive, Communist government. They come to the U.S., sometimes after being smuggled, in search of opportunities for a better life and suddenly find themselves in fear again of the place they thought would provide protection. What they don’t realize is that their lack of permanent residency and language barrier makes them easy targets for exploitation. 

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“They come to the U.S., sometimes after being smuggled, in search of opportunities for a better life and suddenly find themselves in fear again of the place they thought would provide protection.”

Having faith in a new and foreign legal system and finding a place to work can be challenging for these refugees. With that, many turn to the hospitality industry, like nail salons – some of which are family businesses – because it’s easy to get by without knowing much English. However, it is inside these shops where many cycles of abuse have begun and where manicurists are suffering in silence. 

The problem stems from organized human trafficking gangs. Shops illegally use victims of modern slavery because they aren’t required to pay those workers regularly. That generous tip you left in the jar on the way out is sometimes the only compensation manicurists will see. Even worse, their wages may be withheld until the trafficker gets paid. Many are forced to work long shifts and still receive little to no pay, while the store owner, typically an elderly man, gathers the illicit profits.  

Violating labor conditions and working wages is a notorious problem in California nail salons. In 2016, four Vietnamese manicurists filed a lawsuit against Tustin Nail Salon for abusing these very issues. Three years prior to the incident, the same place was cited for similar violations. The women said they feared speaking up for their lack of understanding English. 

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When people – like the Vietnamese refugee women – are being abused in the workplace that provides nearly everything they need for survival, seldom will they find the nerve to take a stand up for themselves for fear they may be deported or without a place to work. Instead they stay quiet, many times pretending they’re okay to please their boss and their customers. 

The four women who did speak out, were brave for not letting intimidation get in the away of seeking justice. However, not all manicurists and workers in the hospitality industry have that freedom. As the number of potential victims rises, it’s important that customers know the signs for when cheap nail salons exploit their staffs. 

One of the most common signs to look out for are low prices. Workers are typically not being paid fairly when the prices for nails manicures are extremely cheap. Sometimes you have to pay close attention to the discounts that seem too good to be true.   

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Fortunately, much research and successful reform is being done to expose the widespread abuse of nail salons workers. Several politicians around the U.S. have enforced crackdowns that investigate the conditions of local salons, preventing unlawful practices and unsafe working conditions. In 2015, Governor Cuomo of New York created the Nail Salon Industry Enforcement Task Force to ensure the reforms are in action. 

Although trafficking in nail salons is a huge problem, together we can build solutions by choosing to be more aware of the signs and speaking up when we sense something may not be right. So, the next time you get your nails polished, consider handing your tips over to your technicians directly, instead of in a lone jar. 

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About the Author

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Danyella Wilder is a senior at California Baptist University studying Journalism and New Media with two minors in Public Relations and Global Justice. She's thrilled to work alongside Dressember in their advocacy to spread awareness about modern-day slavery. Danyella is also an admirer of travel, an online-shopping enthusiast, and she loves going to the beach just as long as she has a great book in hand.