Slavery report sounds alarm over Vietnamese nail bar workers

Independent commissioner calls for licensing to prevent trafficked migrants having to work in slavery-like conditions

Nail bar
The study analyses the experiences of more than a dozen individuals who experienced modern slavery in a nail bar. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Britain’s nail bars have such a high risk of modern slavery that a licensing scheme should be introduced to prevent trafficked Vietnamese migrants being employed in slavery-like conditions, Britain’s independent anti-trafficking commissioner is proposing.

A new report by the independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, provides the most detailed picture yet of the exploitation of Vietnamese nationals en route to and within the UK. It highlights a rising number of exploited Vietnamese workers in nail bars, alongside the use of Vietnamese workers in cannabis farms.

While many of the workers have paid smugglers to bring them to the UK from impoverished parts of rural Vietnam, others, mostly children, have been tricked into exploitation. The report says there is evidence that some have been kidnapped and brought to the UK against their will.

Although there are no figures indicating the scale of the problem, Vietnamese nationals have consistently ranked first or second in numbers of referrals to the police’s anti-trafficking unit; almost half of referrals are for minors.

The report, entitled Combating Modern Slavery Experienced by Vietnamese Nationals Within the UK, calls on the Home Office to work with the Association of Nail Technicians “to implement measures to prevent modern slavery in this sector”. Detailed guidance should be published to educate the police on “the potential for modern slavery within the nail bar sector”, it adds.

In the past decade, the Vietnamese community has established itself in key business niches, “pre-eminently within the nail sector”, according to Hyland, who Theresa May appointed as the UK’s first anti-trafficking tsar. Most of these businesses run as cash only and are unregulated, the report states. There is no data on the number of businesses, but they are understood to be the most popular niche business run by Vietnamese community members in the UK.

“This is serious and organised crime, with people being traded as a commodity,” said Hyland. “We have consistently seen links between nail bars and illegal migration. We know some are feeding and funding organised crime. We need to do something and push it off the high street.”

The report reads: “Technicians will most likely be expected to work six days a week and at least eight hours a day. Many jobs come with accommodation although this will be cramped.”

The analysis of police anti-trafficking reports indicates how nail bars “can become not only a place of illegal work but exploitation too”, looking at the experiences of more than a dozen individuals who experienced modern slavery in a nail bar, most of whom were minors. It says: “One victim was forced to work seven days a week from the morning until 6pm or 7pm in the evening. They were paid £30 a week for their work.”

Another victim interviewed for the report explained that he had to fend for himself when he was orphaned in Vietnam and was taken by people smugglers to the UK where he was locked in a room and trained to paint nails. He was then found work in two nail bars where he was paid £6.50 an hour. “Rather than being able to keep this money, however, he was forced to give it to his traffickers who transported him to and from the nail bars each day and kept him locked up,” the report states.

A nail bar in Bath city centre was shut down in March and the Vietnamese owner was charged with conspiring to control other persons for the purpose of labour exploitation and conspiring to arrange or facilitate the movement of females in the UK, in order to control them in labour exploitation, the study notes.

Efforts to tackle exploitation in this sector have been frustrated by the fact that “despite their popularity and the numbers of people involved, nail bars remain a relatively unregulated industry in the UK.”

In New York, the mayor has introduced measures aimed at ensuring that nail technicians are not exploited and are paid at least the minimum wage, so that nail shops there now need to display “a bill of rights” in multiple languages.

Hyland urged people who use nail bars to be more vigilant about the establishments they visited. “People are confused about this; there is an expectation by the public that surely if it was illegitimate it would be closed by the authorities,” he said, adding that in reality many outlets were very poorly regulated.

“The public need to recognise that there is a risk with nail bars, so that they are aware of the signs,” he said. Warning signals might include very young-looking members of staff, low prices, rapid turnover of staff, controlling behaviour by senior staff or a complete language barrier with the nail technician.

“Look at the venue, look at the conditions staff are working in, look at the costs. Ask: is it feasible to run those premises with those staff members and those prices? These things may stack up; you should contact the police, or the local authority, crimestoppers or the modern slavery helpline.”

Acknowledging that there was no information to indicate the prevalence of modern slavery in nail bars, Hyland said: “Legitimate nail bars should be permitted. Those who have people in slave-like conditions should not be operating on the high street in Britain.”

Anti-trafficking charities have been increasingly concerned by the smuggling of vulnerable migrants from Vietnam into the UK. David Cameron visited Vietnam in 2015 to discuss the issue, but despite repeated raids on cannabis farms employing Vietnamese gardeners and growing evidence of exploitation within the nail bar industry, there has never been a prosecution of the traffickers responsible.

The report proposes that the Home Office should consider funding a pilot telephone counselling service for Vietnamese victims to help them within the first hours of having been identified in the UK. It also recommends training new child-trafficking experts to work with Vietnamese minors.

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