How high street nail bars can be used as a front for organised crime (2024)

Human trafficking is still rife at nail bars across the UK, police and charities warned today - as legitimate business owners said they were struggling to compete with illegal rivals.

Nail salons are an increasingly common fixture on high streets as more established stores shut down, with 302 new outlets opening in Great Britain last year. This makes them the fourth fastest growing category of shop, according to the Local Data Company.

Cut-price beauty treatments make them popular with customers, but owners are coming under increased pressure due to the rising cost of utilities and products.

More than 5,000 nail technicians came together last week to raise their prices for 'National Nail Price Increase Day' - organised by industry body Nail Tech Org after it found members made an average of just £7 an hour.

One UK police officer involved in investigating human trafficking told MailOnline that customers taking advantage of cheap nail treatments may unwittingly find themselves served by victims of exploitation.

Kara Stevens, owner of Maintain Your Beauty in Dartford, said legitimate nail salons were having to compete with those run by gangs. All the shops mentioned in this article are legitimate

Ms Stevens (right) serving customer Natalie Lindfield at her store in Dartford

'We know that while many trafficking victims end up in sex work, a large number do work in nail bars – particularly women trafficked from Vietnam,' he said.

'They come over for the promise of a better life, but end up working long hours for little or no pay. They will have their passport and other documents taken away.

'Nail bars using trafficked women often have one person at the front directing customers to staff, while the staff don't make eye contact.

'And there will often be a high turnover of staff, with someone dropping the women off and picking them up immediately afterwards.'

A nail bar in Northwich, Cheshire was raided by police earlier this month following reports of 'possible exploitation' and three people were arrested.

The raid, which was carried out in partnership with a Home Office immigration enforcement team, led to a30-year-old man being arrested on suspicion of immigration offences.

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In addition, a 16-year-old boy and a 31-year-old man both arrested on suspicion of assaulting an officer.

Unseen, a charity that runs theModern Slavery Helpline, said it was told of 192 potential trafficking victims at nail bars in 2022.

Its director, Justine Carter, told MailOnline: 'The exploitation of workers in nail bars continues to be evident across the UK.

'Through the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, we have previously had reports of nail bars not only involved in labour and sexual exploitation but other criminal activities such as money laundering and drugs.

'Customers who frequent these establishments may be inadvertently contributing to the problem.'

Eleonora Fais, Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, said it was sometimes possible to identify victims by the way they were behaving.

'People in slavery may appear withdrawn, appear to be under the control of someone else and reluctant to interact with others,' she said.

'They may also have few personal belongings and wear the same clothes every day, have a lack of PPE, excessive working hours with no food breaks, be reluctant to talk to strangers or officials, appear frightened or withdrawn and show signs of physical or psychological abuse.'

Neil Giles, director of intelligence at STOP THE TRAFFIK, said 'debt bondage' was a common way for gangsters to control their victims.

Nail shop owners told MailOnline how the cost of livingcrisis has seen their overheads sky rocket as they fight for custom from 'illegitimate' businesses charging a 'pittance'.

Owners, staff and customers have said the fight for customers and reputable shops is harder than ever because of a rise in the black market of nail shops.

All the shops mentioned in this article are legitimate.

Kara Stevens, owner of Maintain Your Beauty in Dartford, Kent has been running her shop for one year.

A row of shops including a nail salon, Blush Nails & Beauty, in Camberwell, London

Anr Hoang, 20, and her 18-year-old sister Vi said basic supplies for a treatment cost between £2 and £5 per person.

The sisters' store, Nails Hair & Beauty in Camberwell

She employs three part-time nail technicians and said her biggest overheads are the price increases from products and rent.

The 40-year-old said: 'We've exceptionally busy, the cost of living crisis has not seen any less of a demand for people getting their nails done.

'But it doesn't mean we still don't have challenges - we do. Rent and products are our biggest overheads. Everything has gone up. And we have to pay for quality products because we need to keep the quality up.

'That's hundreds and hundreds a month. It's challenging. But the demand is great. I'd certainly be moaning more if the demand was not there but it is. Which is amazing.'

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Ms Stevens said she carried out 'thorough checks' on staff.

'I'm very aware the industry does not always have a great reputation and thatcan put some customers off, which is a shame,' she said.

'I know of other stores which have been visited by immigration officers and there's question marks over how they work and their workers.

In addition to illegal employment practices, Ms Stevens said she was aware of claims that other stores use dodgy and cheaper products.

She said: 'We know there's rumours of criminal networks running some nail places.

'I've heard of some places using products meant for teeth instead of nails. You hear all sorts and read about them being fronts for organised crime gangs and a lot of very serious stuff.

The entrepreneur argued there should be an industry regulator for nail salons.

'There are different qualifications needed. But there's no industry regulator and that's not right,' she said. 'Especially with the wider reputation some places have. It should absolutely come in.

'Some places are illegitimate and charge a pittance. That's a shame and ruins it for others. It's why our standards have to be so high.'

Mother-of-two Wendy Roberts, of Derby, spends £600 a year on her nails at various stores in the city.

Lanny, 59, is a nailcare technician at KL Nails and Beauty on the Camberwell Road in London. She has noticed customers coming in less often

A colourful display of nail paints inside Lanny's shop in south London

The 52-year-old media executive said: 'It's shocking to think some get used for drugs, prostitution and trafficking. I know the women at the places I go to and went because of word of mouth and recommendations.

'I think that's really important. It's worth it to pay a bit more for peace of mind for your own nails and also more importantly for the staff.

'I can't believe there's not a regulator. That seems like an obvious idea to improve an industry that does get a bad reputation. It's such a shame.'

Susan Green owns Pretty Special Beauty in Derby, which employs nine nail technicians.

She also backed calls for the industry to be regulated, saying: 'I've heard of shops being raided by immigration officers. It's shocking. More needs to be done to make it legitimate as an industry.

'We work so hard to be good and provide a genuine service.'

The Vietnamese-born managers of two nail salons in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, denied their businesses had any links with organised crime.
Both bosses said they were aware that nail salons have a reputation for being fronts for money laundering and other criminal activity.

But they said their businesses were legitimate and struggling in the current cost of living crisis.

Fashion Nails and Spa and its competitor Merthyr Nails were flat out busy when Mail Online visited.

All the desks were full with customers and people were queuing up to spend anything between £15 and £35 for treatments.

Kevin Vu, 36, owner of Fashion Nails and Spa said Merthyr Tydfil had 10 nail salons including hairdressers.

He said: 'There are so many which isn't good for business. We are busy today but the rest of the week it is quiet. I have three staff who are also Vietnamese - they are salaried and pay their taxes.'

Nail salons are an increasingly common fixture on high streets as more established stores shut down, with 302 new outlets opening last year. Pictured is another salon on Camberwell Road

A nail salon in the town of MerthyrTydfil in the South Wales valleys

Asked about nail salons being linked to organised crime Mr Vu said: 'Not here. This is a family business.'

Phillip Trn, 42, who came to the UK from Vietnam 16 years ago said the business had struggled since Covid.

The father-of-two said: 'We opened up nearly four years ago. It is seasonal, women have their nails done more in the summer and before Christmas.

'I have four part-time staff who are Vietnamese but they all live here in the town. I have heard a lot that nail bars are involved in crime and some may be - I don't know.'

Mother -of-two Kirsty Cavender, 37, was having her nails done in Merthyr Tydfil with her 13-year-old daughter.

She said: 'I've been coming to one of these Vietnamese-run places for about four years, it makes me feel so much better and lifts me up.

'A lot of women feel better when they have their hair down but you can't see that all the time. I love looking at my nails when I've had them done.'

Camberwell Road in London has half a dozen shops offering various nail treatments ranging in price from £10 to £50.

In a small shop opposite Camberwell Green, Anr Hoang, 20, and her 18-year-old sister Vi have seen one customer each since opening up.

The pair live together in Crystal Palace and work part time in Nails Hair and beauty.

Mother-of-two Susan, is a loyal customer at Merthyr Nails, a Vietnamese-run salon in the town

Ms Hoang said: 'This week has been very quiet. Last week was busy for Easter. Customers are coming in less often. This hits me as well. Prices are increasing but if we pass on the increase, it scares away the customers.'

According to Ms Hoang, the basic supplies used in a treatment have increased by between £2 and £5 per person.

'We can't pass it on,' she said.

Her sister Vi said: 'On a good day we could see 15 or 20 customers. Then there are days like today. We are both in college and we want to go into business together.

'Business is hard because you can't get a big salary if you haven't got lots of customers.'

In KL Nails and Beauty, Lanny, 59, is sitting behind the counter waiting for customers to arrive.

'It's not busy this week. Things are quieter. People who came in every two weeks are now coming in after four or waiting for a special occasion.'

Call Unseen's modern slavery and exploitation helpline on 08000 121 700 to report a case or seek support.

How high street nail bars can be used as a front for organised crime (2024)
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