Consumers Continue to Pay for Nail Service from Trafficked Technicians

Woman Painting Nails // Photo courtesy Kelsey Groves

BY MIRA SEYAL

Lien Glankler, born in Laos and raised in Vietnam, held a focus group of potential customers in the summer of 2017 to test her new business plan: a nail salon in Sacramento, California that would break with the increasing dependence on human trafficking to supply workers in the nail salon industry. The reaction to that plan was an unpleasant surprise.

The potential customers didn’t find the labor trafficking of nail technicians much of an issue. There was no discussion of workers’ rights.

Lien began the focus group without revealing her intention to address human trafficking. Instead, she asked women what they didn’t like about their current nail salons. Complaints raised included “they don’t speak English,” “they talk on their phones too much,” and “they’re too rough with my hands and feet.”

As soon as Lien raised the fact that an estimated 17,000 nail salons across America employ trafficking victims, the push back was immediate. “Not at my salon” and “I would have noticed if that were true” were some of the responses.  

From her workplace in Sacramento, Lien recalled her community in Vietnam where, she said, “women didn’t have value.” At the same time, women were expected to help support their families financially. Because of the duty to earn money for the family and the Vietnamese women’s low social status, they are vulnerable to traffickers. “It doesn’t surprise me how easy it is for traffickers to get women to come to the United States,” Lien stated.

The employment of Vietnamese women in nail salons began about 40 years ago in Sacramento when Tippi Hedren, a Hollywood star trained the first Vietnamese nail technicians at Hope Village, a refugee camp in northern Sacramento. Hedren hoped that her efforts would help female Vietnamese refugees find employment in California after they had lost so much in their home country during the Vietnam war. Soon, so many Vietnamese women were flocking to the industry in hopes of a better life, that the increased supply of workers dramatically decreased the price of a manicure – and subsequently the workers’ wages. Manicures and pedicures in the 1970s typically cost $50, according to a study conducted by UCLA. Today, a basic mani-pedi can go for as low as $20. Because the history of trafficking Vietnamese nail technicians began in Sacramento, Lien says the city has an obligation to address the issue.

As soon as traffickers caught on to the fact that Vietnamese women would work in nail salons for low wages, they created schemes to lure women to the U.S. Traffickers in the U.S. target women in Vietnam with vague job descriptions, a flight to the U.S. and the promise of bringing women and their families out of poverty. Communities then pool together their resources in order to obtain a passport for women. Travel expenses are covered through a loan, provided by the traffickers. This loan however, is used to trap women into debt bondage.

The trafficked women arrive in the U.S. only to be trapped in a form of indentured servitude, whereby in order pay off their “travel debts,” they are forced to work in the nail salons. Traffickers will sometimes hold the women’s passports, forcing them to remain in the U.S. to work.

The workers, Lien said, are also trapped because they come to the U.S. to bring honor to their families. So, when the reality of their new U.S. jobs become evident, they are embarrassed to speak out against the violations of their rights. “They’re not fighting for their rights because of the shame,” Lien said.

This is why Lien decided to open a nail salon called Moonshine, which aims to create a better work environment for Vietnamese women. “I hope I can create a space where they’re not scared and they can come and be them and we can honor them.”

Lien Glankler works to create a better work environment for Vietnamese women // Photo courtesy Lien Glankler

Lien plans to honor her workers by guaranteeing minimum wage—$11 an hour—for new workers, many of whom are paid far below minimum wage at other salons. She will also teach them about U.S. culture so that workers have positive interactions with their customers instead of feeling degraded. She hopes that by showing some workers that they can take their skills to a place that respects nail technicians, the women will tell their coworkers in their old salons that there are salons that better protect workers. “It’s going to spread like wildfire,” she said.

But one obstacle may be the indifferent attitudes of the women in the U.S. who patronize nail technicians. What Lien found during her focus group and in the time after however, is that although the beauty industry has begun to look at itself after a New York Times exposé published in 2015, consumers don’t care much about the personal stories of their nail technicians.

“The reality is that people don’t like to believe that trafficking is occurring right in front of them,” said Julie Bornhoeft, Chief Strategy & Sustainability Officer at WEAVE, Sacramento.

So Lien has decided to entirely reframe her project. “You won’t hear me talking about labor trafficking or human trafficking at Moonshine,” she said. To persuade customers to pay a higher price for nails—allowing her to pay her workers a living wage—Lien has found that she would have to market her salon as a luxury shop.

“How do I get these women to change their minds? It’s status, it’s all about status. And so I’m going to make Moonshine about status. So when you come in you feel like queen of all bees.”

Behind the scenes however, Lien is working hard to change the lives of Vietnamese workers. She is currently looking at storefronts and plans to open this year.

Each day when she drives home, she notices what she believes to be an illicit massage parlor across the street that is open after hours, with men walking in and out. Illicit massage parlors, in a similar vein to nail salons, traffic women from Vietnam. Lien believes that the women in the business across the street are victims of sex trafficking. This serves as, “a constant reminder for me that what I’m doing is the right thing… I don’t have a choice.”

Despite the upsetting resistance that Lien has faced from consumers who are unwilling to support a nail salon simply because it wants to address human trafficking, she is determined to make it work. “This is my debt” she said, pausing to speak through her tears, “this is how I’m going to help.”


MIRA SEYAL is a master’s student of Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She is currently working on her thesis, which looks at how art activists on the U.S.-Mexico border use art installations to define the rights claims of refugees and asylum seekers.

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