Nail bars are havens for modern slavery. Here’s how you can help tackle it

Posted by Kate Garbers on the 5th January 2018 in Ethical consumerism, Slavery

In 2016 there were more beauty and grooming salons opened than any other independent business. Latest figures show women on average have 10 pedicures a year and spend £994 per annum on beauty treatments. Men are increasingly purchasing treatments and on average spend £779 per year (Beautiful Britain Report, 2017). I am not one of those women - my nails are terrible but I am fine with this and it works well as a talking point when I have to go into nail bars as part of my work!

I will admit to one pedicure under peer pressure, which I justified as ‘for research purposes’, a first-hand experience of a nail bar to see if I could spot the signs of slavery and exploitation. When put to the test would I recognise the signs we ask members of the general public to look out for?

Budget or ‘discount’ nail bars certainly appear to have taken our highstreets by storm. Offering a cheaper alternative to the traditional beauty salons, they appeal to those who may have previously deemed such treatments to be a luxury. Usually offering a cheaper, speedier service with no appointment required, they appeal to our insatiable desire for a bargain, our need for instant gratification and our 21st century necessity to feel good about ourselves and keep up to date with the latest trends and fashions. And we want to be able to do all of this without interacting with the person behind the mask providing our treatment. Nail treatments are now reported to be part of people’s weekly budgets but what are the hidden costs?

I have written on numerous occasions that our desire for cheap can fuel the illicit trade that is modern slavery. It often feels as if this message promotes paralysis in those that hear it and understandably so. A figure of 40 million slaves worldwide feels overwhelming and insurmountable and it is often unclear what practical steps an individual can take to avoid using ‘slave-labour’ in pursuing our beauty habits.

In a blog I wrote post Anti-Slavery Day I identified and acknowledged that my purchasing decisions hold power and suggested that we justify our purchasing based on affordability and lack of viable alternatives, no longer fully understanding the true cost of products and services. The result of these behaviours may lead indirectly to the exploitation of people. As highlighted in recent reports and cases the nail bar industry is not immune to issues of slavery and exploitation and if more and more of us are using them we need to understand the implications of what we are potentially participating in.

Regulation and licencing of nail bars is largely voluntary and, outside of a few London boroughs, regulation of the industry is considered poor, allowing exploitative practices to continue. It is suggested that in some ‘budget and discount nail bars’ no background or training checks are conducted of the technicians working there. Additionally, some nail bars use chemicals (that whilst not illegal in the UK) that are not considered best practice. Warnings of allergic reactions and permanent damage to nails are concerning and that is before we consider potential issues of slavery, trafficking and exploitation among the workforce delivering the treatments.

I participate in multi-agency visits as part of the work of the South West Anti-Slavery Partnership. Partners from law enforcement, statutory agencies and the third sector come together to investigate sectors where slavery and exploitation may be occurring. One of the main objectives of the work is to ensure that people who may be in positions of exploitation are aware of their rights and entitlements and that there are agencies out there who are able to help. It is well documented that exploiters and traffickers are often keep those they exploit isolated from the community in which they work in order to exert control over them. These visits aim to try and break down some of this control and give people information and ultimately and understanding of the choices, limited though they may be, that they have.

Such a visit was the starting point for the UK’s first successful prosecution of modern slavery involving minors earlier this week in Bath, highlighting the need for agencies to work together to tackle illegitimate business practices within this sector.

The reality is that it is the people using the nail bars that are in a position to provide the best information as to what is happening there. Please do not use this as a justification for continuing to visit a nail bar you have concerns about, but rather a prompt to remember however big and overwhelming the numbers of slaves may seem that you can be part of the solution. You can familiarise yourself with the warning signs if you’re a regular in UK nail bars, report anything suspicious and make informed choices about the beauty salons you visit.

It may cost a bit more to visit a legitimate salon, it may mean changing our habits and one or two less visits but surely this would be worth it to do your bit to eradicate slavery, reduce crime in your area, protect your nails and to support legitimate businesses who are trying to do things right?

Reflecting on the experience as a customer in a nail bar I primarily found it hard to focus on anything that was occurring due to the overpowering smell of the chemicals. I tried to nonchalantly ask questions of the young girl completing my ‘treatment’ about her work and was met with a language barrier which quickly closed down that avenue of ‘investigation’. I even asked to visit the bathroom to see if I could ascertain if anyone was living on the premises, again to no avail. Handing over my £12 cash (no cards accepted) and looking down at my painted toe nails (I didn’t even have a full pedicure it turns out!) some 20 minutes later I was pretty certain I would not be returning to repeat the experience. It felt uncomfortable, not relaxing and my headache lingered for some time.

For a list of signs to spot and potential indicators visit:

If you are concerned about someone working at a particular premises or business you can report your concerns via the Modern Slavery Helpline: 08000 121 700

If you think someone is in immediate danger please call the local police.

You can use the Slavery Footprint tool as a starting point to work out how many slaves work for you and what you are willing to do about this once you have this information.