Human trafficking in the spa industry

Following a White House proclamation in 2011, January is recognized annually as Human Trafficking awareness month.  In recent years, organizations like the Polaris Project and government agencies have helped to shed light on how widespread human trafficking and slavery are in America, in big metropolitan areas, affluent suburbs, and quiet rural towns.

The issue of human trafficking is often top of mind for me as a spa owner because facets of this industry have been used as a way to exploit victims of human trafficking and Iowa is not immune.

Fake Massage Businesses

Fake massage businesses masquerade as providing legitimate massage, reflexology, spa, or other health services, but often operate within a network of traffickers.  People I’ve spoken with are shocked to see how openly these businesses are advertised online.  In 2015 alone there were many raids on parlors:

Salt Lake City, Utah

Central Ohio

Houston, Texas

And in West Des Moines, IOWA in 2015, women were found living on bunk beds in a massage parlor that operated long hours 7 days a week including late nights.  Neighboring businesses reported they never saw employees come or go.  After a visit from the fire inspector, the parlor was told they could re-open once they met fire code. A city council member asked police to investigate the business for illegal activity, but police declined.

Licensed Massage Therapists are health care providers who have extensive education in their field.  While some people laugh and tease licensed massage therapists like my colleagues and me about these parlors, it breaks our heart, especially when the people forced to work in places like this may be slaves, even minors.  The reporting and labeling these businesses as “massage” is dangerous to licensed massage therapists like me and puts us at risk for assault or harassment.

It also is unfortunate as it stigmatizes the good work that licensed massage therapists do, making some people less likely to seek services that could truly benefit their health, including pregnant women, cancer survivors, senior citizens, children with disabilities, athletes, and people with high stress levels or injuries.

Nail Salons

In 2015, a series of articles in the New York Times by Sarah Maslin Nir exposed nail salons for human rights violations.  The organization Human Rights First explains more about nail salon labor exploitation.

As a spa owner, I know exactly how much a safe and ethical manicure and pedicure cost.  Quality products that are free from the harsh chemicals common in some high volume salons are expensive (Our cost for a bottle of base coat, top coat and one color of Shellac is $65.85, not to mention all the lotions, scrubs, and disposable tools we give to our clients or toss after a service!)

In order to ensure safety, employees can’t rush through services and need to allow adequate time to clean and sterilize their tools.  The cleaning and tool sanitation time is time they can’t see clients.  If a salon is under pricing services, they will have to make it up in volume which doesn’t always allow for adequate tool or tub cleaning. Nail technicians spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours attending training programs and continuing education so they can provide safe, skilled services.

Basically, my point is that if a nail service is really cheap, something has to give, whether product quality, sanitation (reusing disposable products, not allowing enough time to clean instruments or tubs), or employee compensation.  Often, all three.

Like the fake massage businesses, nail salons are also under investigation.  The New York Times series set off a rush of legislation and investigations in the northeast in 2015 exposing many labor violations.

It isn’t a recent problem for nail salons.  The Huffington Post published an article in 2013 explaining some of the reasons nail salons are easy fronts for human trafficking: Low hour requirements for licensing programs, a predominately cash-based business (easier to launder money), and at least in 2013, they were more under-the-radar than fake massage businesses.

In Virginia, a nail salon is under investigation after human trafficking reports in November

In Connecticut, 23 nail salons were shut down in 2015 for wage and health violations

New Jersey also started cracking down on health and wage violations in nail salons last year.

It is important to note that not all low price or high volume nail salons are engaging in illegal or unethical practices. Nail salons can be an excellent business for people with lower start-up rates and many are operated well by people who are passionate about their career or making an honest living.  However, human trafficking is growing at such an alarming rate nationwide, it is important to know the signs and report any suspicions.   Learn more about the signs at

If you know someone you suspect is a victim of human trafficking, you can also contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline 1-888-373-7888