The Vietnamese teenager's face is a picture of earnest concentration as he crouches beneath a desk lamp and delicately applies acrylic varnish to the fingernails of a middle-aged woman in a high-street nail salon in the British Midlands.

The 18-year-old's English is rudimentary - he giggles and grunts shyly beneath his face mask - but the shop's female manager compensates for his lack of conversation by chatting happily away about her relatives in northern Vietnam as her understudy completes a French manicure. Twentyfive minutes after his customer has walked in off the street, his handiwork is complete. The woman leaves the salon admiring gleaming nails, which, at the equivalent of HK$250, set her back the price of a modest lunch.

In towns and cities across Europe and North America, nail salons are a luxury that more and more women are indulging in. They have exploded in popularity because they are cheap and they replicate the nail art sported by celebrities such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga.

In Britain, where, like in many other Western countries, high-street rents have plunged in recent years as financially crippled stores close down, nail salons have grown in number - by almost 20 per cent in the past four years. Across Europe, the sale of nail polish has grown at nearly double the rate of the overall make-up market in recent years. In both Europe and North America, the faces on the other side of the salon table are almost all those of young Vietnamese migrants, many of them freshly arrived from Asia. In California, where the trend for Vietnamese-run nail salons began nearly 40 years ago, an estimated 80 per cent of nail technicians are Vietnamese.

But behind the veneer of a booming industry in accessible glamour there is increasing concern among human rights groups. While most of the high-street businesses are legitimate, many of the young men and women working in nail salons are the victims of a form of human trafficking. Many come from poverty-stricken rural areas and are smuggled overseas after being put in the hands of trafficking gangs by their own families to give them the chance of a new life abroad, a Post Magazine investigation in the migrants' home country has found.

The youngsters end up as bonded labour after their families, in farming villages in Vietnam's northeast, remortgage homes and farm land and borrow heavily from relatives and friends to pay traffickers the US$20,000 a head it costs to take their sons and daughters to Europe to work in nail bars. The youngsters endure treacherous, months-long journeys through China and Russia, passed from one gang to another before entering Europe. Many then go on to Britain - the biggest European market for nail salons - hidden in cross-channel trucks or flown in from third countries within Europe using forged documents.

Then - living with a constant fear of discovery or arrest - they work for two to three years as bonded labourers, sending almost all their earnings home to pay off the huge debts their families have accumulated in a country where annual earnings in rural areas are only a few hundred US dollars.

A senior diplomat dealing with crime and migration issues at the British embassy in Hanoi says Vietnamese migrants, including those who have been working in nail salons, are being deported home on a weekly basis. While the workers face being deported back home still heavily in debt to the traffickers, the salons usually face at most a fine of a few thousand pounds for failing to run proper checks on employees.

Furthermore, the nail-salon industry in Britain is linked to Vietnameserun cannabis factories. The same gangs that traffic salon workers to Britain traffic workers for the cannabis factories, and a report last year co-authored by the British embassy in Hanoi and Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency found some nail salons are used to launder the huge profits generated by the drug factories. Some salons earn far less from their core business than they do by laundering drug-factory profits, and send millions of dollars back to Vietnam, often carried in the salon owners' luggage.

For the young men and women in the salons, the rewards are far less enticing. The most they can usually hope for is a salary of a few hundred pounds a month after their family's debts are paid off - along with the distant prospect of citizenship if they remain in Britain long enough to qualify for permanent residence.

Some Vietnamese migrants suffer even worse fates, according to British charity Stop UK, which claims to have helped 12 trafficked females who had their travel documents taken from them by traffickers, were forced to work in nail bars and, in some cases, were physically and sexually assaulted.

The bustling port city of Haiphong - Vietnam's third biggest city - is the epicentre of the country's human smuggling industry. Here, powerful gangs load migrants onto boats to China for the first leg of the 10,000-kilometre journey to Europe.

Before being put in the hands of traffickers, many youngsters sign up for classes at "nail academies", where they each pay US$200 for a six-month course in manicuring, skills they will need when they reach their destination.

Prize-winning manicurist Johnny Nam Kiet, 29, who for five years has run one of the city's most popular nail academies, says: "Nearly everyone who graduates here goes to work abroad. I just train them.
How they get to the country they choose to go to is their business. I don't have anything to do with that."

The skills the youngsters learn from tutors such as Kiet are virtually redundant in Vietnam itself, where the only people prepared to pay for manicures are generally tourists in five-star hotels.

Although some youngsters heading overseas to work in nail salons enter their destination country through legal means - on a student or tourist visa - strict border controls mean the only option for many is to pay traffickers.

As she carefully applies nail varnish to a dummy training finger, 24- year-old student Hanh Phuc says: "I have relatives in London and I will go to work there when I finish. There is no work here but I've heard that in Europe, anyone who works hard enough can get rich."

A 19-year-old called Thanh says she had hoped to enter Britain on a student visa then work in a nail bar but her visa application was rejected. "That means I can't apply again for a few years at least so I will have to find another way to get in. I've already got a job waiting for me."

Asked if she would consider asking her family to pay traffickers to take her, she smiles and says: "I don't know. But if you want to go overseas and you live in Haiphong, the only visa you need is money."

Young men and women trafficked overseas to work in nail salons are quickly absorbed into established Vietnamese communities, often working in shops set up and operated by relatives or contacts from their home region.

About 15 kilometres south of Haiphong lie three small villages with a combined population of 5,000 from where hundreds of young women and men have been sent overseas to work. With duck farms and rice paddies the only visible means of income, Doan Xa, Dai Hop and Tu Son are criss-crossed by dirt tracks and single-track roads punctuated by gaudy, elaborate three-storey villas built with money sent home by migrant workers.

"Everybody here has a relative working abroad," says cafe owner Phuong, in Dai Hop. Pointing to an ostentatious villa, she says it is owned by a couple who left Vietnam more than a decade ago and now own a restaurant and a chain of nail salons in north London.

"They've been in Britain for 10 years and they have citizenship now. They're doing so well they come back every once in a while to recruit more girls to work in their nail shops. They guarantee them jobs but the girls' families still have to pay traffickers to get them there," Phuong says.

In these villages, the price of a passage overseas is common knowledge. Traffickers charge 400 million Vietnamese dong (HK$147,000) - usually payable half up front and half on arrival - for the journey to Britain, they say. Prices to be trafficked to other European destinations vary from 350 million to 450 million dong, depending on the difficulty of bypassing the respective checkpoints. Scandinavian countries have become increasingly popular in recent years.

The fee covers all costs incurred on the months-long journey, which involves being passed from one gang to another and periods in hiding, waiting for "safe" times for border crossings to be attempted. The system is so effective, hardly anyone fails to make it to their destination, villagers claim.

The uncle of one girl whose family paid to traffic her to Britain says: "Anywhere in Europe is good to go to. But Britain is very popular because it is a kind country, and the government there looks after people even if they have entered illegally. If they catch you and arrest you and deport you, they even give you money to help you find your feet again when you get back to Vietnam."

A 44-year-old man, who returned to Vietnam in 2010 after four years working illegally in a restaurant in Berlin, Germany, recalls his ordeal: "It is a very frightening journey. You are passed from gang to gang and they are all armed," he says. "When I went across one land border in Eastern Europe, I had to walk beside a trafficker with a gun and a silencer in his pocket. It was like having a bit part in a gangster movie. When you eventually get there, it isn't the promised land you expected.  It's just very hard work and years of stress and debt."

Crouched over an iced coffee in a village cafe, he says: "I tell young people and their parents here what happened to me and warn them not to do it. But they always end up saying to me. 'There's nothing for us here. What else can we do?' I don't really have an answer to that."

In Hanoi, British embassy officials are working hard to demystify the allure of entering Europe illegally and are pressuring Vietnamese officials to do more to crack down on traffickers. Britain funded a Vietnamese government public service broadcast shown on prime time television that highlights the plight of two returning illegal immigrants who ended up working in cannabis factories. So far, however, it appears to have done little to stem the flow.

The British diplomat says youngsters whose families pay to send them to work in overseas nail salons are trafficking victims under United Nations definitions, even if they go voluntarily, because their case involves debt bondage.

"The family is in huge debt before the person even leaves Vietnam and the person is used to cover that debt, so that is trafficking. The public service broadcast shows people that the streets of London aren't really paved with gold as they imagine.

"We have excellent co-operation with the Vietnamese on returning people [to Vietnam]. Now we are working on mechanisms to prevent people going in the first place and trying to stop illegal migration. That is our key challenge."

A spokesman for the Home Office in London says the UK Border Agency regularly carries out raids to round up illegal migrants in nail salons around the country. Dozens of young men and women have been arrested and deported over the past year but they are thought to represent only a fraction of the illegal workers trafficked into Britain.

"Human trafficking is a brutal form of organised crime and our cross government strategy makes clear what we are doing to tackle it. We're aware of the threat from Vietnam and are taking action at home and abroad, working closely with other agencies.

"People smuggling, which exploits vulnerable and desperate people, is fuelled by employers taking on illegal workers. Those businesses will be targeted and prosecuted by the UK Border Agency."

As the popularity of nail salons continues to boom in high streets across Britain and Europe, however - and while the price of a 25-minute manicure exceeds what many youngsters can earn in a week in rural Vietnam - the human tide from East to West is unlikely to ebb.




The spread of Vietnamese-run nail salons around the world began in 1975, with an unlikely encounter between a group of female war refugees and a Hollywood actress.

Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and mother of actress Melanie Griffith, met the 20 women when she called in on a tent city for Vietnamese refugees in California called Hope Village.

The women, middle-class professionals who fled to America after the fall of Saigon, were fascinated by Hedren's immaculate nails - and the actress responded by bringing her manicurist to the tent city once a week to train them.

Hedren, now aged 82, then persuaded a beauty school to train the women and help them sit their licensing exams. One of the graduates teamed up with fellow refugees and set up the first Vietnamese-run beauty salon in the United States.

The success story spawned thousands of imitators. The need for only limited language skills helped the growth of the industry and some Vietnamese entrepreneurs soon established chains with dozens of salons across North America and, later, Europe.

In 1975, a manicure or pedicure could cost up to US$60 in the US. Nearly 40 years on, thanks to the ubiquity of Vietnamese-run salons, the price today can be as little as US$20.


Red Door News, Hong Kong