But they’re missing the most important threat to their lives.

Nail salons proliferate across America. Probably much of Europe and the elite stops of the world as well. Speaking from the US, I can say they’re so ubiquitous, these strip mall, storefront shops are competing with established hair salons and day spas for business to a degree that’s had the bigger, established businesses worried for years. Even former big salon workers opening their own breakout small nail businesses are concerned, as much about sanitation and regulation as by competition. I knew this already from some scattered experiences with one of them, as a woman professional with an increasing public event schedule that required an encounter with such places for a more ‘polished’ appearance, when time allowed.

I also learned the story from the other side, when I either had to run into a strip mall shop for an impromptu visit without appointment for a hurried nail polish before a special event, or when I was surprised by a guest on human trafficking on the air on radio who turned the conversation to what goes on in strip mall nail salons. Most of these are run and/or staffed by Asian women and even young men, most to my knowledge are Vietnamese (at least in my area around Chicago). The atmosphere in the only shop I visited was ‘off’ for some reason, one that made me instinctively uncomfortable for some reason I couldn’t discern.

I was shocked when international human trafficking expert Liz Yore was on my show for headline news, and delved deeper into the issue raising the disturbing fact that many suburban nail salons in America are staffed by victims of human trafficking. As we delved into the topic, we got a caller from Minnesota, a member of the police force in his city who affirmed what we were saying and expressed gratitude that we were making it public. Law enforcement can only address problems that are suspected, reported or identified. That takes a community effort. But the community has to be aware in the first place. So we did all we could, in a few different radio shows, to address this, and continue to, in the many ways people are being victimized by traffickers.

So now, along comes news stories in big media on nail salons , and I’m hoping the truth is finally coming out about that hidden, dark secret keeping so many people enslaved. Turns out they’re about the health hazards of the products used in nail salons, and the working conditions and wages.

Like this New York Times article. It goes through the conditions of the salons, and the reactions of Korean and Hispanic workers in them, to the fact that regulations were finally being addressed, and they were finally being informed.

But overlooked in the story is still the darker one, of human trafficking. Liz Yore put together this list of questions, to help identify possible sites for follow up investigation. The warning signs she spoke of on my show fit the workers in the salon I dropped into a couple of times. Though I do simple nail polish myself these days, I think of the workers I encountered those times, and how uncomfortable it would be to ask them these questions.

Thinking through it further, I realize how unfortunate, unjust and possibly tragic it would be if customers knew the questions, but were too uncomfortable to ask.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....