Human trafficking in your nail salon

When my mother and I get pedicures she always talks to the woman who paints her toes. This drives me crazy. I tip generously, but for me part of the beauty of a pedicure is in the anonymity of the service. My mother, though, is right. I think her approach to relationships holds a key to one part of the struggle against human trafficking. It is in relationship that trust is built, and only in a trusting relationship will victims of human trafficking come forward.

Human trafficking is the smuggling, trading or exploitation of people for the use of their labour or their bodies. The most recent numbers suggest that 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States every year, and the RCMP estimates that between 600 and 2,000 people are trafficked into Canada annually. These numbers are worrisome, but they are relatively small given the size of our populations. The bigger problem is that within our countries the labour of both residents and citizens can be exploited. And many recent studies demonstrate that this problem hits closer to home than we’d like to admit. The beauty industry, for example, exploits the labour of young women in ways that can parallel slavery.

In May 2015, Sarah Maslin Nir of the New York Times wrote a shocking expose of the illegal and dangerous conditions suffered by manicurists in New York city. Over the last three years, newspapers in the U.K. have documented the connection between human trafficking and nail salons in cities throughout England. These reports describe the terrible work conditions that manicurists face, often because the workers do not have a way to enforce their rights. Some do not speak English; some do not have legal papers to work, and many owe large sums of money to the people who trafficked them into or around the country. Often workers are not paid a fair wage – sometimes only a few dollars for a full day of work. And long term health consequences occur when manicurists don’t have masks, gloves or a ventilated work area for safety.

Taking action
Christians are justifiably outraged by the crime of human trafficking, and we usually support legislation focused on detecting and supporting the victims of what is often referred to as modern day slavery. But it is also important for us to recognize that government and even the work of non-profits can be only one part of the solution. Every one of us, in our own everyday lives, must work to take responsibility for those who are victimized.

First, we have to admit that these things can happen right in front of us, in our own towns. Last year in my city of Spokane the owner of a nail salon was arrested for pimping young women from his suburban home. In the first reported Spokane County human trafficking sting, women were found locked up in a seemingly abandoned shack that I have driven by many times. So many of us were shocked, but had we been more attentive I wonder what we might have seen.

Second, if we’re not part of the service industry ourselves, we have to be the kind of people who know and build relationships with those who cut our hair, paint our nails, service our cars or clean the tables at our favorite restaurants. Be alert for the following conditions, which indicate a potential trafficking situation: if a worker lives with an employer; if an employer prevents you from speaking with a worker or if the worker seems to be scripted or rehearsed in conversation. As we build relationships we can ask questions like these:

• Have you ever tried a different job? Could you if you wanted to?

• How did you decide on this sort of job?

• Are you in debt to your employer?

• Can you come and go if you please?

If answers seem worrisome, make a call. Every Canadian province has an office with toll free numbers where reports can be filed. In British Columbia, for example, the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons number is 1-888-712-7974. In the U.S., the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 gives a lot of helpful information related to law enforcement and other professional assistance.

It is scary to think that we can perpetuate the pain or abuse of another simply by getting a pedicure or making use of other inexpensive services. Getting to know the vulnerable people in our towns is a first step toward taking responsibility. 


  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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