Nail salons are used for modern slavery. Here’s how to spot an ethical one

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Sophie Qureshi
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Here’s how to tell if your nail salon is treating its staff properly – and what to do if it isn’t…

Hands up if you pick a nail salon based almost entirely upon how cheaply they’ll do your Shellac. Seem like a no-brainer, right? But if you’re getting your nails done for next to nothing, the salon could have some pretty shady practices going on – unhealthy conditions for staff, brutal working hours, well-below-minimum-wage pay, and even modern slavery.

A report by the independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, painted a grim picture of the exploitation of workers in UK nail bars. One victim quoted in the report was forced to work seven days a week in a salon for £30 a week. And it’s more common than you’d think. 

“Many of us assume that if a salon was illegitimate, it would have already been closed by the authorities, but in reality, that’s not the case,” says Justine Currell, executive director of anti-slavery charity Unseen

Despite their popularity and the numbers of workers involved, nail bars remain a relatively unregulated industry in the UK – which means the onus is still on the customer to choose a salon responsibly.

So how can you spot an ‘ethical’ nail salon? Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut rules, but here are the tell-tale signs that you shouldn’t be giving a salon your business…

1. The prices are too good to be true

You might think you’ve lucked out by stumbling across a salon that offers manis for barely the price of your lunch, but here’s the bottom line: if a mani is crazy cheap, someone is paying the price (most likely, the manicurist painstakingly painting your nails). If the prices seem suspiciously low once you consider the location and rent costs, the staff might be getting paid off the books – and below minimum wage.

“Prices vary hugely from region to region but as a rough ballpark, I would say you shouldn’t be paying less than £20 for a gel manicure anywhere in the UK,” says industry veteran Marian Newman.

“Less than that and the figures just don’t add up by the time you factor in the cost of 45 minutes of someone’s time, the cost of products, and all the other overheads that go into running a salon properly.”

Taking cash only doesn’t necessarily mean a salon is dodgy – sometimes small businesses just want to avoid the bank charges from accepting cards. But it can be a red flag for tax evasion, and if a salon is evading taxes, it’s probably not paying its staff properly. 

2. The salon reeks of chemicals

“An ethical salon will have proper ventilation to protect the health of both its nail technicians and its customers,” says Newman. “It’s not just about chemical fumes – one of the most hazardous materials in a nail bar is the dust from filing. 

“Filing by hand isn’t such a problem as the dust is big and heavy so it falls to the ground, but if the technicians are using electric files, there should be at-source extractors to take away the very fine dust these produce. Otherwise staff are just breathing it in all day.”

3. Hygiene is not a priority

A salon that’s lax about hygiene is likely to be less vigilant about other regulations too. If the nail files and buffers come fresh out of a wrapper before they’re used on you, that suggests the salon isn’t trying to cut corners on costs, so they’re more likely to treat their staff ethically and pay them a decent wage. 

“It’s also now recommended that metal tools are properly sterilized with a machine, rather than just disinfected in Barbicide, so that’s another thing to look out for,” says Newman.    

4. The staff don’t talk to you

“If the person doing your nails doesn’t engage with you or with the other manicurists, that can be a warning sign that something’s amiss,” says Justine Currell, executive director of Unseen. “Often workers being maltreated won’t take payment from you themselves – they’ll point to someone else for you to pay and may refuse a tip because they’re not allowed to accept one. 

“In isolation, this may not indicate anything untoward, but in combination with other warning signs, it would be something we’d want to look into.”

5. People are living in the salon

“We’ve had people call our helpline and say that while they were having their treatment, they could see a room at the back with mattresses on the floor,” says Currell. “That could be a sign that something’s not right. Again, it doesn’t mean there’s anything illegal going on, but it might indicate that workers are being made to live in unacceptable conditions.”

6. You don’t recognise any of the nail brands

If a salon uses well-known, reputable brands, it gives you some reassurance that they’re legit. 

“Good, ‘full-system’ brands like CND Shellac, Gelish, and OPI have proper distributors that will only sell to qualified nail professionals,” says Newman. “Of course, anyone can buy products off eBay or Amazon so good products do get into the wrong hands, but it’s at least some indication.”

Just don’t assume that a salon that uses eco-friendly or ‘non-toxic’ products is necessarily ethical in the broader sense of the word. You’d hope that a salon that promotes ethical practices from an environmental point of view would also pride itself on treating its staff ethically, but it isn’t a given.

7. Something just feels ‘off’

If in doubt, trust your gut. “If something is making you uneasy – maybe the demeanour of the manicurists just doesn’t feel right or the atmosphere feels oppressive – call our helpline on 08000 121 700 or get in touch at,” says Currell. 

“You can speak to us completely anonymously and we contact the relevant bodies and authorities to ensure the issue is investigated sensitively. No one is going to barge into a salon or shut it down unless there’s proper evidence of illegal activity. 

“With nail salons, there’s a whole spectrum of issues from poor working practice through to labour abuse, through to modern slavery, and our staff are specialists in this.”

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