LONDON • The discovery of 39 migrants found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain has reignited calls for efforts to tackle slavery in the nail bar sector, a common destination for trafficked Vietnamese.
It is believed most of the people found in the truck were from Vietnam, one of the top source countries for victims of modern slavery in Britain - accounting for about 10 per cent of 7,000 suspected slaves referred to the government for support last year.
Police are investigating the case and it is not yet clear why the victims were travelling to Britain. But it is well documented that some Vietnamese - lured to Europe by promises of lucrative jobs - end up exploited in illegal cannabis farms and cheap nail bars which have proliferated across the country.
"(We need) tighter regulation in various sectors such as cash-in-hand nail bars and car washes where it is easy for exploitation to take place," said Ms Philippa Southwell, a lawyer who specialises in trafficking. She added that nail salons were often used to launder proceeds from criminal activity.
Although many nail bars set up by Britain's Vietnamese community are legitimate, experts say traffickers have piggy-backed off their success. Anti-slavery charity Unseen said labour exploitation at beauty salons was the second biggest concern, after car washes, for callers to its hotline last year, with 477 potential victims.
Britain's anti-slavery chief on Tuesday said most recommendations made by her office in 2017 on tackling the issue - including regulation of nail bars - had not been implemented. Trafficking experts said the deaths, which were discovered last Wednesday, should be a "clarion call" for stronger action to protect trafficking victims. They also called for tighter controls including more labour inspections.
In 2017, Britain's then anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland urged tighter regulation of nail bars in a report on combating trafficking involving Vietnamese nationals. One victim quoted in his report worked seven days a week for £30 (S$53). Another had to give all his money to his enslavers, who locked him up between shifts.
Mr Hyland said Britain should look at New York which had introduced controls on nail bars.
His successor Sara Thornton said most of the report's 35 recommendations had not been implemented. "Although we don't yet know the full details of this case, it appears to bear the hallmarks of human trafficking," she said of last week's discovery of the bodies.
One victim quoted in a report worked seven days a week for £30 (S$53). Another had to give all his money to his enslavers, who locked him up between shifts.
The British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology said there was an urgent need for regulation, ideally by an independent body. The association, which launched a campaign two years ago with Unseen to raise awareness of exploitation in nail bars, said it would like to see a mandatory code and labour inspections.
But others said there was no need for an independent body.
Ms Emily Kenway, head of the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said: "We need to fund labour inspection properly and we need to stop criminalising undocumented people." She added that criminalisation prevented trafficking victims seeking help for fear of arrest and deportation, which played into the hands of their exploiters and hampered efforts to tackle the issue.
Tell-tale signs of exploitation in nail bars include unfeasibly low prices, staff who look very young or are unwilling to make eye contact, and overbearing managers who insist on taking the money.
Women questioned on the streets in London said they were aware that exploitation was an issue in nail bars.
"I always make sure they look happy," said banker Sonia Patla, 31. "You notice the ones who aren't happy, who aren't talking. Also if the prices are too cheap it makes you wonder."