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The Darkness Behind Your Mani-Pedi

Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Every girl loves a good mani-pedi, right? I've even seen some men get polished and buffed, too, but did you know that the nail salon industry is notorious for mistreating its employees? Often times, the darkness of human trafficking exists, with some salon owners forcing their employees to sleep on the premises, often on a dirty mattress hidden in the back room. It's sad but true.

Last week, I was long overdue for a mani-pedi. I always cringe when I step in to these nail salons in my sweet little town. After all, I'm working to stop human trafficking and am well aware that all these girls - some men, too - might be victims of this heinous crime. It's hard to find any American workers; the salons are chuck-full of Aisan employees from Korea or China. On occasion, I've seen some nail techs from South America polishing and primping their clients' nails, too. I'd like to think that all of these employees are being treated fair and square, but deep down inside, I know there are some who might be trafficked.

In one salon in our town, there's a Peruvian woman, Rosie, who left her two kids and husband behind to come to the United States. Whenever she speaks of her children and her life back in Peru, a sense of sadness comes over her, and it just breaks my heart. I have always wanted to come right out and ask, "Did someone take your passport? Are you here against your will and cannot return to your family?" As a mother of three, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for these foreign-born workers to live their lives without their children on a daily basis. Is she being trafficked? Quite possibly, but it's a fine line, and it's hard to prove.

There's one salon in our town I refuse to go to anymore, having witnessed how nasty and controlling the owner is to his employees, pushing them to work faster and to get more manicures done in a timely manner. I've seen these young Aisan women pile into a large van, which I know full well takes them to and from Queens, New York each day; it's easily a 90 minute drive each way without traffic. I have often wondered why anyone would make such a long commute, to work so hard and for so little money. Is it really worth it? Somehow, I doubt it. The average rental property in Queens is around $2,200. These girls have to polish an awful lot of fingers, just to meet the high rent, which is exactly why the salon owners push and push and push their employees to work faster and see as many clients as possible. I have visions of these girls living with several people in a small space, just so they can have a roof over their heads, not to mention healthy food on their tables. I've never had the guts to come straight out and ask how the employees are treated, until now. Here's what I learned from a favorite girl at a local nail salon:

Francesca was hovering over me, holding a popsicle stick covered with wax in one hand and shooing away a bee that had decided to visit us with the other. To help out, I popped up from my supine position and somehow got the bee to fly out of the small waxing room. I had seen that the back door to the salon was propped wide open, undoubtedly the cause for the visit from our pesky friend. As I shut the door which led to the back parking lot, I noticed a sign that listed the break schedule, which made me happy. "Phew. They get breaks," I thought. There have been countless stories about nail salon owners making their employees work hours and hour, without a break and often without the proper pay. I'd even heard stories of nail salons that force their employees to sleep on dirty mattresses in some back room, hidden from the clients, right here in the tri-state area.

In 2015, following an expose in the New York Times about a dirty little secret taking place in the Big Apple's nail salons, Connecticut's Department of Labor conducted an investigation of 25 nail salons, selected randomly throughout our sweet little Nutmeg State. Not surprisingly, 23 of them had been violating wage laws and were shut down. The salon owners were slapped with fines and forced to pay back wages to the tune of $62,000 to over 50 employees and pay $130,000 in civil penalties for all these wage violations. To learn more, here's the article about it from Think Progress, which also highlights the work Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing to stop these abuses from taking place in New York.

Knowing all of this darkness that lurks in the nail salon industry, I somehow mustered up the courage to ask Francesca, a sweet Korean girl in her 20s, how she and the other employees were being treated at this "Fun Nail Salon". While hovering over me with hot wax, she told me that things are okay, especially since this investigation had been made. I asked her about the long, long commute each way and how she felt about it. Apparently, because there are so many nail salons in Queens and New York, the girls find it more lucrative to take the long ride up to Connecticut each day. I still scratch my head about that one, but Francesca seems to be fine with it. My hamstrings and low back would die. I could never, ever do it.

I also wanted to know if she gets paid fairly, and she told me that ever since the Department of Labor cracked down on nail salons, things are much better. She assured me that if clients tip her on their credit cards, she does receive the money. I always ask for my cash to be returned to me, so that I can personally hand the nail tech my tip, especially when I have had more than one person work with me that day.

And, so, the next time you drop into your favorite nail salon, be aware that human trafficking has been a dirty little secret in this industry. If you feel comfortable, ask your nail tech how he or she is being treated, but be mindful of the boss, who may be watching every move. It's tricky business, but the more we all become aware and demand fair treatment for all, the sooner we will be able to bring an end to this form of modern day slavery. If you do suspect human trafficking taking place in your favorite nail salon, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, managed 24/7 by Polaris, 88-373-7888. Add the number to your cell phone, just in case you should ever need to use it.

Dorina Leslie is the founder of Shine the Light Project, a grassroots movement to prevent things like human trafficking and labor exploitation, through the arts, education, and awareness. She welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with artists, musicians, authors, and activists who are passionate about creating a better world in which all people are living free of exploitation. Please feel free to contact her and join in the movement. Follow along on Facebook

#NailSalons #StopHumanTrafficking #LaborExploitation #ConnecticutNailSalons

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