How Human Trafficking Seeps Into the Beauty Business

·Senior Editor
Salon workers can sometimes be victims of trafficking or labor exploitation, according to a new Polaris report. (Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Salon workers can sometimes be victims of trafficking or labor exploitation, according to a new Polaris report. (Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When many people think of human trafficking, the typical image is one of women forced into prostitution. But while the modern-day sex trade is certainly a big part of the grim story, a new report shows that human trafficking comes in many horrific, less obvious forms — 25, to be exact — that even include a wide swath of the beauty industry.

“If you can’t count a problem, you can’t fix it,” Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, a national nonprofit working to combat human trafficking in the U.S., explained in a Wednesday teleconference for journalists. “To find solutions, you have to cite [the problem], type by type.”

To produce its comprehensive report, “The Typology of Modern Slavery,” Polaris looked at data, received through its help hotlines and text line, from more than 40,000 cases of potential trafficking. It represents the largest data set on U.S. human trafficking ever compiled.

It’s a stunning reminder that, while slavery may seem like a problem of the past, “human traffickers generate hundreds of billions of dollars in profits by trapping millions of people in horrific situations around the world, including here in the U.S.,” according to the Polaris website. Traffickers use violence, threats, deception, and other tactics to force more than 20.9 million victims — 55 percent of whom are women and 26 percent children — into modern slavery each year.

The reporter further breaks down human trafficking into a remarkable range of categories — including escort services, pornography, domestic work, food service, traveling sales crews, agriculture, construction, hotels and hospitality, landscaping, health care (such as with home health aides), carnivals, cleaning services, health and beauty services, and illicit massage.

“The beauty industry is interesting,” Myles said, “because both the sex trade and labor trade can be present — pimps can bring women in to get their hair and makeup done,” as depicted in the recent season of ABC’s American Crime series, “while on the labor side, it can also be the person doing the hair who has been trafficked against their will.” These types of trafficking situations have been reported to Polaris by hair braiders in New Jersey, for example, and examined by the New York Times in a major 2015 exposé about Korean nail salons in New York City.

Though such beauty-industry workers have regular contact with customers to provide services, language barriers and intensive monitoring can make it difficult for such employees to reach out for help. Many tend to be from Vietnam or China, the report states, and methods of deceit used by recruiters may involve misrepresenting wages, working conditions, and immigration or educational benefits.

Also, it notes, “Victims are often not aware of the possible ‘intern’ periods, when they work extensive hours for no wage and are lucky if they get to keep tips in cash.” Then there are abuses including exposure to harsh chemicals without masks or gloves, frequent movement between salons to prevent the victim from making helpful connections, and isolated living conditions.

Of the 295 reports of human trafficking cases and 116 labor exploitation cases related to beauty, 91 percent involved women and 79 percent involved foreign nationals.

In the illicit massage, health, and beauty category of the Polaris report, meanwhile, businesses operate under a seemingly legitimate façade of spa services, while actually dealing in the sex trade. The majority of such places are part of larger networks, the report notes, with at least 7,000 such storefronts operating in the U.S. The victims in these cases tend to be women from China and South Korea or Southeast Asia, controlled through coercion, extreme intimidation, threats of shame, isolation, or debt bondage, and are typically closely monitored by a manager.

Rebecca Bender, a survivor advocate and founder of the nonprofit Rebecca Bender Initiative, called the report “a milestone for the human trafficking movement,” adding during the teleconference that it’s “hard to get people to think outside the box to understand the complexity of the issue.”

Still, it’s a partial picture, Polaris noted, and not meant to be a representation of the total trafficking in the U.S.

Concerned consumers can look for various signs of intimidation during salon visits, the experts suggested, including possibly trafficked customers in the sex trade who don’t pay for their own services (and instead have a man with them do the paying), have a nervous demeanor, refrain from any decision making (regarding their hairstyle or nail polish color, for example), and do not make eye contact with their possible trafficker. Regarding salon workers who may be being exploited, Polaris suggests asking questions about their conditions and, if it feels safe, passing on the help hotline (888-373-7888) or BeFree text line (233733) information.

Mostly law enforcement will benefit from the latest compilation of information. But hopefully it will also raise awareness among everyday salon-goers. The report, Bender added, “finally gives a voice to all survivors of all typologies.”

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