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I’ve only had a handful of manicures in my entire life. Perhaps that’s because pretty, polished nails used to last me 10 minutes. Digging for crystals in abandoned silver mines and changing racing tires made for chipped nails. Don’t misunderstand… I’ve always filed my nails, worked hard to make sure my cuticles are in good shape, usually a coat of clear polish, and as my friend, Sherrie, says, “I keep my toes polished except when I let them winter.” In the last six weeks, however, I’ve had my nails polished twice. Both nail salons alarmed me.

Did you know your nail technicians could be victims of modern day slavery?

One of these two salons was in California, the other in San Antonio. All of the nail techs (what happened to the term “manicurist?”) were young, Vietnamese girls who barely spoke English. Few looked up or talked to their clients, and if a client initiated a conversation, the pit boss–with folded arms–walked up and stood behind them until they stopped talking.

The pit boss in San Antonio was also Vietnamese. I use the term “pit boss” because he reminds me of the Las Vegas pit bosses whose job is to make sure their casino dealers don’t pull anything shady. This pit boss was small and thin with an oversized, slicked back, pompadour, a nice belt and loafers and a grim face.

It was an upscale salon with a juice bar, but something about it made me uneasy. I studied the 10 nail stations and 20 pedicure chairs, all full of customers and nail techs. None of the young, Vietnamese women wore wedding rings or looked remotely happy. I never saw one smile. Even the customers didn’t look happy. If you’d silenced the nail clippers and Kenny G’s rendition of “Summertime… ” It would have been almost as quiet as a tomb.

If you have your nails done regularly, you may be use to a similar scene, but for me… It raised a lot of red flags.  

After my polish change, I went home and researched nail salons and lo and behold… I was shocked to learn much of the proliferation of nail salons in every community is fueled by organized gangs of human traffickers who smuggle young, Vietnamese women into the U.S.

Many of these young women have fled poverty and unimaginable horrors. Because of no money and no alternatives, they are funneled into nail salons, not out of a passion to do nails, but to pay back their trafficker and make good money for their “pit boss.” Many don’t make a living wage, and yet, they send more money home to support their families in Vietnam than they keep for themselves. Many are also forced to work at night as prostitutes or drug farmers, and it’s not uncommon for 10 or more to live together in the same room.

Because Vietnamese manicures cost as little as $7, traditional nail salons aren’t able to compete. 

More importantly, getting our nails done may be fueling the rise in slave labor. 

The next time you get your nails done, here are some things to look for with mani-pedi slavery:

  • Salons that prefer cash.
  • Salons want you to give your nail tech’s tip to the person at the front desk… and not in an envelope with their name on it.
  • Nail techs don’t speak English.
  • Nail techs don’t talk with the customer about anything except the manicure.

If you think the nail salon you visit may be exploiting the young women who work there, call the police and alert them! Then find another nail salon! Personally I’ll be going back to pit boss and his women to look further into my suspicions and then go from there. After that, I’m returning to doing my own nails.

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  1. Thank you for observing. I stopped going to nail salons because it made me feel uuneasy. My intuition was telling me that something was not right. Now I understand.

    • Hi Irene, I don’t want to insinuate all nail salons are run by human traffickers. Just that we need to use our instincts. We know when there’s something not right about a situation. Thanks, Brenda

  2. Bravo for raising this. As a UK lady and regular user of nail salons (although not the work house type) I’ve had this on my radar for some time. Like you, if I hear of it or (god forbid) see it then I will report it to the appropriate authority. As with every service industry, we must vote with our feet (no pun) in the hope that such establishments will have a short life span.

    • Jeanette… “Vote with our feet… ” That sums it up! If we think a nail salon isn’t a healthy, supportive place for the nail techs to be working, we shouldn’t continue to go there. Thanks for your awesome comment. Brenda

    • It’s not every nail salon where Vietnamese or other immigrants work that are problematic! We just have to be savvy, “keep our ears up” and be aware of what’s going on around us. Thank you, Debra! Brenda

  3. Brenda, this alarms me, as well. I shunned these salons years ago because of fungal infections and unfriendly staff. It never occurred to me that these establishments might be involved in human trafficking. I know some of the restaurants are involved in this. My daughter just became a nail technician in our smallish city. Women (and men) are flocking to her as they are tired of having their nails ruined by questionable techniques. Thank you for bringing this to light for your community.

    • Hi Martha, Other than a lifestyle that’s not conducive to nail polish, I haven’t gotten manicures and especially pedicures for fear of fungal infections. So many women I know have been plagued by infections they’re having difficulty getting rid of. Now that I lead a tamer lifestyle, if I knew of a salon with a good reputation… regardless of the nationalities who worked there… I might go more often. Thanks so much!

  4. I’ve had a very positive experience with my nail salon nearby. It is run by a Vietnamese family…cousins, aunts, mom and daughter. They’re always friendly, it’s clean, they speak English (much better than I’d EVER speak Vietnamese!) very well for mostly being 1st generation immigrants – and when I don’t understand, I ask for clarification. The daughter of the woman I go to is a college student who works as often as she can during the school year and then full-time in the summer. She looks and sounds like any other American kid, which is typical of 2nd generation immigrants. It seems that almost all of us regular customers know something about our nail techs and likewise, they know about us…births, weddings, illnesses, etc. There’s a lot of laughter and fun when I go for my monthly pedi and bi-weekly mani. They have a “rule” about paying in cash for transactions below $15, which is fairly typical of ALL small businesses because they have to pay a surcharge to the credit card companies, which means they don’t make as much off of each transaction. I ALWAYS tip in cash directly to my nail tech – it’s preferred by the tech because they don’t have to claim it (I know, I know…I’m sure that none of us have ever accepted cash and not paid tax on it! 😉 ) nor pay a percentage of it to the credit card provider.

    There were exposés done by major news outlets a few years ago on the type of nail salon “factories” that you describe, Brenda. New York State made owners raise the minimum wage and thus, the price of a mani went up in NYC, which had always been ridiculously cheap! I’m sure that slavery still goes on, but more people are aware of it these days. Unfortunately, there is a lack of state inspectors to regularly check on salons to make sure everything is on the up & up.

    I would caution us all from being too suspicious of the language barrier and the racial heritage of our manicurists. Many of these girls are young, new to this country, and sponsored by family members who already own or work in a nail salon so they’re coming to America to a job that is waiting for them. Culturally, we are very different from the Asians, with respect being tantamount to them, hence, QUIET.

    TO be honest, I’ve had the BEST mani/pedis of my life with Latina, Vietnamese or Korean nail techs! Check out the salon for cleanliness and if you like the vibe, stay.

    • Dear Mamavalveeta and Brenda

      I live in a suburb close to the city on Brisbane and I have been visiting my local nail lounge for 3 years now. Like, your salons, they are Vietnamese, the workers are Vietnamese. The salon is clean and kept tidy during the day and they are always updating their towels and seating cushions with new ones that have their logo stitched on them which keeps the place nice. They charge fairly standard Australian prices, I have gel nails so my monthly charge is AU$45 and a pedi will cost you AU$55 which is not dirt cheap in anyone’s currency. I have met the owner and her husband, they are in their early ’40’s and their mother and father both work in the salons, I think they have a couple of salons in various shopping centres. I don’t mind the girls being quiet. I have one who I ask for because when she does them they last me much longer than anyone else has ever been able to do for me. This girl smiles and is friendly and asks if I have been at work today but apart from that, I can listen to my Audiobook while she works away and I’m done in 30-45 mins. My only concern is that this business could be a target for Vietnamese mafia who are making the owners launder cash for them. However, we in Aus are mostly a cashless society now, as we use our ‘tap and go’ key cards or credit cards at every store, even for small purchases like lunches at cafes, so there is isn’t much of the paper stuff to launder any more, and my salon are fine with me paying on card. I think on Sundays they are cash only, but our tax department is massively cracking down on cash businesses and so again, it foils the money launderers. And we don’t have a tipping custom here, so what you pay is all you’re expected to pay. I love my nail salon and I know there are some dodgy ones around, I visited the one around the corner once when mine couldn’t fit me in, and it was filthy and I wouldn’t go there again. I agree with Brenda though, be wary, watch and avoid. It’s nice to know I can still have mine guilt free. Well, almost.

      • TJ, Thank you for sharing your experiences with your nail salon! As I told Val, I love knowing you go to a great nail salon. I know there are lots of them out there! I just want us to be aware that smuggling young Vietnamese girls into other countries to be nail techs or work in the sex trade is a huge, huge problem. That’s how my late husband, James’s, manicurist got here. She got free and went to work in a men’s barber shop, but she still was… not sure what the right term to use is… “focused” or “solicited” the male customers for sex. She would always say, “Ah, Mr. Jim. You no like to f^%# a nice Vietnamese girl? I give you good price.” She was not joking.

    • Hi Val, I love hearing about your salon! It makes me happy because it’s an example of the American dream and something we wish for everyone who comes from another country to live here! You bring up a lot of valid points, however, and I can see how the signs I listed–which were posted by law enforcement as things to look for–might also exist in hardworking, innocent family businesses. Not all nail salons with Vietnamese technicians are controlled by human traffickers. Statistically, however, we need to be aware that the huge influx of cheap nail salons around the country are ones that should give us pause for thought. Let me be clear… What I’m writing about IS NOT A LANGUAGE BARRIER or a reflection of RACIAL HERITAGE or CULTURAL DIFFERENCES.

      We have to use our instincts to make a decision about the salons we frequent. Where you go sounds like a totally different planet from the two salons I’ve been to recently. The one I went to this week… These young women were more than uneasy and quiet because of a language barrier. I’ve venture to say they were afraid. They never looked up, looked at one another, smiled and rarely looked at their clients and did not talk. The whole time I was there, the grim boss man walked up and down the aisles. When my nail tech started coughing and stopped for some water, the boss man came and stood behind her and went so far as to lean in toward her and stay in that position, even after she resumed doing my nails. He didn’t ask if she was alright. Just the opposite. You could tell he was not happy with her.

      I respect that small businesses prefer their customers pay in cash, and I try to pay my hairstylist in cash and tip her in cash. Even though NY State has forced these salons to raise the minimum wage, that’s not the case for all of the United States. I’ve also read current articles that these rings are currently a huge problem in the UK.

      • Yes, Brenda! I think one of the biggest warning signs should be “If the cost of a manicure seems too good to be true, it’s probably because the techs aren’t being paid or treated fairly!”

  5. Brenda, thank you for bringing this up. My daughter got involved in a group helping support women escaping from sex slavery and educated us about the nail salons. She said to also watch for shops with bars in the front windows or something keeping you from seeing inside. Also watch if they have rooms in the back. The girls’ behavior is a big key, and your description is worth checking out further. Hugs.

    • Beckye, I’m glad to know there are women, like your daughter, who are out there actively trying to help these women and who are educating the rest of us. Brava! You’ve just given us more good data to think about. Thank you! xoxox, Brenda

    • Hi Paula! Great to see you here! We’re a smart, well-informed group of women, aren’t we? It is a possible life-altering topic, one that has me wondering what I will do after I go back next time if I walk away with the same red flags. Thanks so much, Paula!

  6. I have never gone to a nail salon. My mother in law used to – one in our local mall in upstate New York. I didn’t take her (another family member did). Yes, there is a big difference between culture and something where your instinctual alarm bells go off. I have posted on Facebook and will be curious to see if there is any response.

    • I Lynda, I read your post with interest. Other than my lifestyle and the financial commitment to getting mani-pedis, which I do myself, I’ve been concerned about getting a toenail fungus. A friend of mine got one, and it’s permanently changed the way her nail looks on one of her big toes, so I decided to pass on that. Now I’m leery of supporting anyplace that might not have the best interest of these young women in mind. I’ll continue to do my own nails. Thanks for sharing your piece. Brenda

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