Human Trafficking: Spot the Signs

You’ve heard the statistics, you’ve read the articles, and you’re aware of the problem. For most of us, however, the issue of modern-day slavery still seems far away.

While there are hundreds of case studies we could examine in dozens of professions, let’s take a moment to dive into the beauty industry, where modern-day slavery may be hiding in plain sight.

The darker side of the beauty industry

Unregulated nail and beauty salons often provide a front for labor exploitation, trafficking, and even prostitution. The workers might be refugees from China, Vietnam or South Korea. They may not speak much English. If smuggled into the US, they may be indebted to their traffickers for everything: food, housing, transportation and communication. Furthermore, the threat of deportation hangs over these workers constantly.

“Even though we smiled and seemed happy in front of customers, the truth was that we were quietly suffering,” said Jenny Hoang, former employee of Tustin Nail Spa In Orange County, California, after she and three others issued a criminal complaint against the spa, according to an NBC News story. “We did not fight back because we were grateful to have jobs as refugees who do not speak a lot of English, and we wanted to provide for our family and children.”

“The Price of Nice Nails”

In 2015, a New York Times piece called “The Price of Nice Nails,” journalists visited nearly 2,000 salons and interviewed 150 salon employees, finding the “vast majority” of them working for as little as $1.50/hour during work weeks that pushed the 70-hour mark. Conditions in the workers’ living spaces were no better, with several young women bunking in tiny cockroach-infested rooms.

The Times article reported that when the New York Labor Department investigates these salons, it finds employees are underpaid nearly 80% of the time.

Spot the signs

Note that these situations are the exception and not the rule. However, both customers and salon professionals should be aware of the signs.

Possible indicators of exploited labor: the individual…
  • Is not free to leave or come and go at will
  • Paid only through tips or paid low or no wages
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Cannot take breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • Works in a place with high security measures (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
  • Is living and working on site
  • Experiences verbal or physical abuse by their supervisor
  • Has no access to proper safety equipment
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • May not speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

This is only a partial list. Additionally, not all exploitative situations will check every box. Keep your eyes open! That little detail that seems “off” might just be an indicator of a deep injustice.

If you encounter a situation in which you suspect someone is a victim of modern day slavery, labor exploitation, or human trafficking, you can reach out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline 24/7 at 1-888-373-7888.


January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Throughout the month, Elite Learning will be taking an in-depth look at these issues. Follow our blog series for resources, tips, and knowledge you need to make a difference in your profession.

Research and article courtesy of Judith Munson.