Nail salons are booming all over Britain. But behind the glossy facade, lies a shockingly disturbing story…
They are ubiquitous. Stroll down any High Street and you would be hard-pressed not to notice the dozens of nail salons which have opened in recent years.
The cheap and cheerful manicure has been the success story of the recession. The number of nail bars has increased by 20 per cent in the past year alone.
Earlier this year it was revealed that they are the fastest-growing business on the High Street, constituting 16 per cent of new outlets in the past three years. There are now 30,000 in the UK.
With manicures costing as little as £10 — and taking no more than half an hour — they offer the perfect affordable pick-me-up.
However, behind the bright lights and spotless surfaces of the salons, there is an altogether darker story.
Experts believe many staff — very often Vietnamese — are smuggled into Britain illegally by organised gangs of human traffickers. They are made to work as virtual slaves during the day and then, sometimes, as prostitutes or drug farmers by night.
In Suffolk, it has been reported that police are searching every salon in the county twice a year in the hunt for illegal workers after finding a 17-year-old manicurist being groomed for prostitution in a pornography-filled bedroom in Ipswich.
A female worker in a Scottish beauty salon who was interviewed by police described how she was illegally trafficked to Britain from Vietnam, and made to work in a Newcastle brothel before being moved to Scotland.
Disturbingly, young girls are particularly in demand since they can make more money for their pimps when forced into sex work.
A 2011 report by the British Embassy in Hanoi highlighted the alarming practice of injecting pre-pubescent girls brought over from Vietnam with hormones to induce puberty.
Campaigner Bharti Patel, of Ecpat UK, an organisation that raises awareness of human trafficking, says: ‘We know of several cases where people brought over by traffickers have been sexually abused.
‘There are children between ten and 15 years old who are forced to do all kind of things, from working in brothels to domestic servitude.’
Other Vietnamese nail technicians are forced into the drug trade.
According to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, 90 per cent of immigrants trafficked to Britain and then forced into cannabis cultivation were from Vietnam. Many have been brought to the UK illegally with the promise of a job in a nail salon.
Typical of these was 34-year-old Hung Tran, who was eventually deported from the UK after it was found that she had been forced to look after more than 700 cannabis plants, grown in a private house in Newport, South Wales.
Indeed, a spate of other recent cases have shown how Vietnamese drug gangs are using nail bars as a convenient legal ‘front’ for their activities.
Vietnam-born Duc Vinh Le, 38, was jailed for eight years in June last year after it was revealed that he was running a cannabis factory on the second and third floor of the salon run by his cousin, Daisy Cuc Thi Nguyen, in Porth, South Wales.
Police recovered 370 plants from the premises, with a potential annual yield of almost £320,000. It was staffed by illegal immigrants, housed in two properties nearby.
This was the second such discovery in as many months. Earlier, 42-year-old Duc Sy Bui, who ran the Exquisite Nail Bar in Lincoln, was convicted of laundering money made from cannabis farms. He used the manicure business as cover.
And in August, 2011, Police discovered 33-year-old Tri Van Li tending to nearly 500 cannabis plants, with a potential value of £500,000, in a rented house in Sunderland. Li, who was jailed for two years for cultivating drugs, had left his family farm in Vietnam three months earlier after being promised paid work in a nail bar.
On arriving in the UK, he was forced to work without pay, and then sent to look after the cannabis farm. According to the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, two thirds of the Vietnamese ‘slaves’ forced to work in cannabis farms are under 18.
Official figures show that more children are trafficked to Britain from Vietnam than from any other nation, and in the past three years the authorities have identified 254 potential child victims from the South-East Asian country, making up 25 per cent of such cases. About two-thirds of those have suffered ‘labour exploitation’.
The British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology (BABTAC) says human trafficking is a ‘huge problem’ in the beauty industry, and has launched a campaign, calling on customers to address the issue and ask manicurists about their training and qualifications.
Meanwhile, the Conservative MP Peter Bone, who chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, has described the forced labour of illegal immigrants as an ‘enormous and . . . a totally hidden’ problem.
Estimates suggest 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists are working in 15,000 nail salons across the UK.
Yet census data states that officially there are only 29,000 Vietnamese-born migrants living in the country.
Within the past five years, more than 90 nail salons across England and Wales, all owned by men or women with Vietnamese names, have been fined a total of nearly £700,000 for employing illegal immigrants.
London, Manchester and Portsmouth are also reported to have salons which abuse labour and immigration laws. In many cases, prostitution and drug dealing are also involved.
In one high profile case, in 2010, a Vietnamese gangster called Do Huan Nguyen was extradited to Hungary. He was described as ‘instrumental’ to an international criminal group which trafficked more than 50 Vietnamese illegal immigrants to work in cannabis factories and nail bars across the country.
Frequently uneducated and speaking little English, it is thought these salon workers come to the UK because they believe that the British authorities deal with illegal immigrants more leniently than authorities in other countries.
Indeed, while some illegal immigrants manage to evade border checks, others arrive and simply claim asylum (as they have been advised by their traffickers).
Anyone seeking asylum is legally entitled to stay in the UK while awaiting a decision on their claim. This can takes months, even years.
But why is the nail salon business being targeted? The answer is that while they may lack formal education, many immigrants arrive here already trained.
In towns and villages across Vietnam, six-month courses in nail care at specialised ‘academies’ can be bought for around £150.
The workers will be approached by a trafficker — who could be acting alone or as part of a gang — with the promise of a better life abroad, in return for a fee, sometimes in the tens of thousands of pounds.
This fee — or ‘debt bond’ — is to be paid from their eventual wages.
They are flown to Russia, at a cost of around £300, which becomes part of the debt bond.
According to the 2011 report into the trafficking of women and children from Vietnam by the British embassy in Hanoi, Russia issues approximately 50,000 visas to Vietnamese citizens every year, frequently without checks.
From Russia, these migrants travel overland in the back of lorries through eastern Europe into Hungary.
Then they are normally taken to France before crossing in to the UK across the Channel — again, in the back of lorries or in freight containers.
There are other routes. Some illegal immigrants have been discovered taking cheap flights from Eastern Europe with false papers.
Arriving in the UK, they find themselves wholly at the mercy of their trafficker. At best, they will be put to work in a salon — paid in little more than food and accommodation, which might be a cramped house nearby, or even the salon floor.
This was exactly what happened to 28-year-old Mi Duc Li, who paid £23,000 to traffickers to fly him from Vietnam to Heathrow via Thailand and was then forced to work in the USA Top Nail Bar in Milton Keynes by ‘slave master’ Hanh Van Vu.
After seven years, he escaped. Thanks to his testimony, Vu was held at Heathrow after he attempted to board a flight back to Vietnam.
The nail salon industry once represented a chance for hard-working Vietnamese families to improve their lot.
Now, tragically, the unvarnished truth is that the business is all too often a front for slavery, sexual abuse and drugs.