Chinese Women Enslaved in New York Nail Salon Demand Justice

Would you think it was possible that the person doing your manicure or pedicure was working without pay and being abused? That a day at the spa for you could be just another day of servitude for the people servicing you? At Babi Nail Salon in New York, the abuse of nail salon workers wasn’t just a possibility — it was a reality. But the six women who survived exploitation at the hands of Babi’s owners are fighting back by filing lawsuits, staging protests, and fearlessly telling their story.

Babi owners Kui Soon Cho and In Bae Kim hired six Chinese immigrants to work in their nail salon. However, once the employment began, the owners refused to pay the workers minimum wage, and sometimes refused to pay them at all. Each woman was paid a mere $35 per day for more than 10 hours of work, six days per week. The women were forced to buy gloves to protect their hands against the harsh salon chemicals out of their wages and were prevented from wearing face masks to avoid fume inhalation. In addition to withholding wages, Cho and Kim physically abused the workers by kicking, pinching, and clawing at them. They also mocked and derided their Chinese ancestry.

It’s hard to tell if Cho and Kim’s actions meet the technical legal definition of human trafficking in the U.S., but their actions were certainly exploitative and illegal.

But what Cho and Kim didn’t expect was that the women they hired and abused would refuse to accept their fate without a fight. Recently, they filed a lawsuit against Babi and its owners, claiming labor law violations and discrimination against them for being Chinese (the owners were of Korean decent). And when the lawsuit didn’t feel like enough justice, they staged a protest in front of Babi to draw attention to their situation. These are women determined to seek justice for the wrongs that were done to them and prevent such harm from coming to others. Smashing, ladies!

Despite the awesome survivor power, this story was jarring for me. We often hear about trafficking into industries where the victims don’t interface directly with many people except the traffickers — in private homes, construction sites, factories, isolated farms. But the women exploited at Babi Nail Salon were face to face with customers every day. They touched countless people’s hands and feet, maybe even made polite chit chat. How could their situation have gone unnoticed for so long?

I’m a bit of a pedicure addict myself, and while reading this story my mind flashed back to all the pedicures I’ve ever had. Were any of those women trafficking victims, working against their will? Were any of them hoping that I would ask questions or offer assistance? It’s easy to believe how someone locked in a house or trapped inside a factory could be enslaved, unnoticed for years. But the abuse of these women seems so preventable. If only someone who used their services knew what to look for.

Since I first heard a story of human trafficking in a nail salon, I’ve become (possibly overly) chatty with anyone I meet during a pedicure. I haven’t yet felt the need to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and I hope I never do. But I’ll always keep my eyes out for suspicious activities, and if I see some, I’ll call the hotline. Because it’s better for them to be safe than for me to be sorry I didn’t help when I could.

Photo credit: quinn.anya



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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. its disgusting how people take advatge of those seeking a better life. I hope those guys go down!

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