For me the ultimate in pampering is getting my nails done. Back in New Zealand I would eagerly anticipate my fortnightly trip to the salon. I couldn’t wait to sink into the plush chair and enjoy a good goss session with Rosa.
Coming away with perfectly pink or fiery red nails never failed to improve my mood. The only downside was the cost. Sometimes I’d cut back on my groceries to afford it.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered how cheap it is to get my nails done in London. Today pretty much anyone can afford one and the industry is one of the few that has grown significantly during the recession. According to the Human Trafficking Foundation the number of nail salons increased by 20 per cent in 2012.
But this affordable luxury comes at a price.
In August last year The Sunday Times revealed the shocking truth that nail bars across the UK use trafficked workers. They focused on a police operation that uncovered trafficked workers in a Scottish nail salon. This was one of more than 100 similar operations across the UK in the last five years.
The Times put a face to trafficking which is hard to ignore by sharing the stories of some of these trafficked workers.
One such story was of 15-year-old Tan* who was admitted to an English hospital at six months pregnant, infected with an STD and suffering post-traumatic stress. Her uncle had sold her to human traffickers and she was forced to work long hours in a nail bar to pay back the thousands of pounds of debt to get her to the UK. She was repeatedly raped and abused during this time.
In the past five years at least 90 nail bars have employed 150 illegal immigrants and been fined almost £700,000. However the true scale of the problem remains unknown. The biggest British nail product suppliers believe there are around 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists working in 15,000 nail bars across the UK. But the latest census data shows only 29,000 Vietnamese-born workers living here.
We can be quick to point to Wilberforce’s legacy and assume this isn’t an issue that concerns the UK because slavery in the country was quashed centuries ago. But that’s clearly not the case.
I naively thought human trafficking, slavery and exploitation happened in other countries not at home. That it is happening at home really struck a nerve. It has forced me to reconsider getting my nails done but also to rethink the choices I make which affect people beyond my own doorstep.
I’ve heard with sadness stories about slave labour in Indian factories. I’ve read in outrage about coffee pickers in places like Hawaii enduring terrible working and living conditions in exchange for unfair pay. Last year I watched in horror the reports that over 1,000 people had been killed in the collapse of the Rena Plaza Factory in Bangladesh. In those moments I’m resolute that I will only buy Fairtrade and stop shopping at Primark and the Gap. But I’m ashamed to say that convenience and cost always win out over my good intentions. I justify this with the belief that my actions are too small to matter.
We live in a society which measures success by the possessions we own. Most of us would be guilty of getting caught up in the ensuing cycle of consumerism.
I’d venture to say there would be few of us who haven’t been lured into buying four tops when we intended to buy one simply because it’s a bargain. Our wardrobes quickly fill with things we don’t need yet we continue buying with little thought to the true price being paid for each item.
We’re constantly on the lookout for the cheapest services – be it a massage, a meal, a cleaning service, a haircut or a manicure. Again we give little thought to how that service came to be so cheap.
I’m the first to admit that I’m guilty of grabbing a bargain I don’t need, choosing my coffee brand based on cost and thoughtlessly seeking the cheapest services.
For this ‘privilege’ of consumer freedom we enjoy, a great price is often being paid by someone else. That price is dignity, health, innocence, choice and above all freedom.
I won’t meet the woman in the Indian factory, the coffee picker in Hawaii or the little girl in the clothing factory in Bangladesh. But I could meet a trafficked nail bar worker like Tan. I will sit across from her and talk with her as she holds my hand and meticulously paints my nails.
I can’t avoid Tan’s plight. I can’t conveniently forget. I can’t easily disconnect. This injustice and suffering is uncomfortably close and heartbreakingly real.
In Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect we have a proud legacy of emancipation. Right now we have little to be proud of. We should be encouraged by the work of our forebears and inspired to follow in their footsteps rather than justifying our inaction and indifference with the excuse our choices are too small to matter.
In recent weeks God has really been challenging me about the choices I make which directly or indirectly support human trafficking, slavery and exploitation. I’ve been prayerfully considering changes I need to make.
It’s not just a case of forgoing a manicure.
I know my consumer choices won’t overturn the human trafficking industry overnight. But if more of us commit to making thoughtful consumer choices we may start to effect positive change.
And just as importantly we will be actively choosing not to support an industry which enslaves, exploits, and abuses people.
Let’s be more thoughtful in our purchases and in the services we use.
Let’s support organisations on the frontline who are fighting to end this injustice.
Let’s pray; for those enduring unspeakable atrocities, for decision makers around the world and for those committed to fighting slavery.
Let’s talk with our MPs so we get the best possible law to address modern slavery in the UK.
And of course let’s rethink those manicures.
*Name changed for protection.
To find out more, visit the Evangelical Alliance’s modern slavery page: