Viet Voice

Committed to Ending Slavery in the Salon

by Kimberly Pham | November 2, 2011 | Bookmark +

For the past few years I have been volunteering with VietACT, the Vietnamese Alliance to Combat Trafficking, a small grassroots organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking of victims through advocacy and education. Human Trafficking involves the recruitment, harboring, and transportation of individuals solely for the purpose of their exploitation and is considered one of the fastest-growing crimes worldwide, with 12 to 27 million people held under slave-like conditions.

In July, our sister publication, NAILS Magazine, ran an article that brings to light human trafficking in nail salons told from the perspective of an American nail tech who has had enough.

The Vietnamese-American salon industry is predominantly made up of refugees and immigrants. Doing nails is one of the quickest ways to make a living in a new country for those with limited English. At the same time, the ease of entering the salon business has made it easy for traffickers to take advantage of workers.

Knowing the numbers and the crime's growing appearance in unassuming cities and neighborhoods, I was still shocked that human trafficking, this worldwide crime that affects nearly every country and preys on the young and innocent, has made its way to the U.S. and into the salon, a place I once considered a safe haven for both nail techs and clients. My sense of security has been shattered with news stories about how nail salons, including salons that are Vietnamese-owned, are being used as fronts to hide illegal activity in back rooms or are withholding wages from hard-working nail techs.

“Trafficked victims often feel trapped, are held against their will, and go unnoticed because victims rarely speak up for fear of being deported or harmed,” says Van Le, former program manager for VietACT. This can go on for years, directly in front of their American clients who are not aware of the situation they are in. To be face-to-face with other women, hand-in-hand, and not be able to ask for help or speak up about one’s imprisonment and suffering is heartbreaking.

In the human trafficking article, freelance writer Michelle Pratt cites some road blocks in the attempt to help eradicate trafficking from the salon industry, including the potential difficulty in identifying victims and how victims don't self-identify or come forward, and the tension that has built between Asian vs. non-Asian salons. Pratt calls this an internal roadblock that we have to overcome in order to make progress.

"It’s been described as a tension between 'Asian' vs. 'Caucasian' salons, or 'traditional' vs. 'discount' salons, or even 'standard' and 'non-standard' salons. There’s a split in the nail industry, and while signs point to improvement, there’s still a long way to go. Techs on both sides can agree on the basics: unlicensed, unsafe, unsanitary salons should not exist — regardless of the race and country of origin of the owner or nail tech. Further, both sides have strengths and weaknesses; we can learn from each other — whether it’s in regard to efficiency and speed or comfort and customer service. 'We’ve got a real problem,' says Tomilynn Rando. 'Traffickers are exploiting our industry to force women into modern-day slavery. Let’s work together to be their voice and their advocates.'"

The first step is to understand that human trafficking exists, even in our part of the world, and to know the potential warning signs. Here's a list of some of the warning signs from the Polaris Project. I've decided to leave out some potential "red flag" signs that border on different cultural customs that may be mistaken for warning signs (such as "avoids eye contact" and "doesn't speak English").

Someone may be a victim of human trafficking if she:
- is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
- is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
- works excessively long and/or unusual hours
- is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
- has high security measures in her work and/or living locations (like opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras)
- is fearful, anxious, depressed, tense, nervous, or paranoid

The second step is to come together. Despite the differences in the culture of your salon, we can't solve any of these problems if we don't come together in solidarity. Our industry is about empowering women and helping them feel beautiful, both inside and out. If we also must fight to keep our industry safe and free from exploitation, then I’ll help do whatever it takes to recreate the safe haven I now dream of for all who enter a salon. I plan on working with Michelle Pratt and Tomilynn Rando on their Free My Nail Tech campaign. By year's end I hope to have some downloadable resources available in English and in Vietnamese.

— Kim

If you believe you or someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: (888) 3737-888.

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