A woman paints hearts onto her fingernails

Let's nail it: this is how to spot the signs of modern day slavery

Mar | 47 sharesTegan Hedley

For many women, a manicure is a cheeky indulgence, a way to make you feel that little bit special and put-together between the doldrums of daily life. For that precious hour, the biggest problems in your life are whether to plump for a sexy scarlet or a subtle mauve - and whether you’ll regret your choice later. But in between ranting about your partner/child/latest frenemy, did you ever stop to think about the person on the other side of the counter and what their life looks like away from the salon? Unfortunately, authorities and charities are warning it may be darker than you think.

According to Will Kerr, director of vulnerabilities at the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), the number of people trapped in situations of modern slavery now stands in the “tens of thousands” in Britain. Of all of the trades affected by slavery, the beauty industry is right up there with the worst of them - and nail bars are of particular concern. In fact, the issue is now so endemic that many are advocating the introduction of a licensing scheme specifically for nail bars to regulate employment. In the USA, the problem of modern slavery is most commonly found in domestic settings and the food service industry, but the Global Slavery Index has also listed its beauty industry as one of the worst offenders.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that human trafficking gangs see the beauty industry as an easy area to make money. After all, nails are big business. In America alone, it is a multibillion-dollar industry - and one in which modern slavery is lurking.

A hand close up of a woman having a manicure

Credit: PexelsIn the UK, Vietnamese nationals have been cited as particularly, but not exclusively, at risk of exploitation. Victims are often trafficked from abroad on the promise of a good job, then forced to work long hours for little or no pay, often with few days off. Many live in substandard conditions, with their actions and possessions tightly controlled. Even more bleakly, when they’re not busy doing your nails, many are also believed to be forced to work in the sex industry.

So, what are the signs to look out for?

1. Who is in charge? 

Does there seem to be one person that handles all transactions, never letting employees anywhere near the earnings? Does one person dominate other staff members and appear aggressive or abusive? Do technicians seem afraid of one particular staff member? This will most likely go far beyond your own usual wariness of your boss.

2. How happy do the staff seem? 

Everyone has off days, but if your technicians seem withdrawn or unwilling to engage, it may be a symptom of a deeper problem, such as unhappiness or control. Much like hairdressing, it’s a super social job and nail techs can be notoriously chatty. Individuals that have trouble communicating in English may be more vulnerable to exploitation.

3. Do you know what their hours are like?

Under UK law, workers are entitled to reasonable hours and regular breaks; if your favourite salon is open all the time and the same staff always seem to be manning it, it may be an indication that the staff are being subject to unfair working conditions. Yes, it’s convenient for that last minute spur of the moment appointment, but you also probably know that "overworked and underpaid" feeling too.

4. What is their domestic life like?

Do you happen to know that the staff are dropped off to work every day at the same time? Do they all live in quarters above the salon? Do they show signs of having very few personal possessions, such as repeatedly wearing the same clothes? All of these are signs of control and a lack of an independent life.

A view of a pedicure station in a salon Credit: Pexels

The moral of the story is that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is; that temptingly cheap mani-pedi from that eerily silent salon may seem like a good idea now. But by turning a blind eye, we keep people in subjugation, in substandard conditions and deny them the basic rights that so many of us take for granted every time we head off to work.

If you think someone may be a victim of modern slavery, or need help or support, you can contact the modern slavery helpline on 0800 0121 700 or visit their website to read more about the issue.