Two teenage girls who were trafficked into the UK from Vietnam in search of a better life were exploited by a “devious and manipulative” nail bar owner in Bath. 

The girls, who lived in cramped conditions in the owner’s home, were forced to work 60-hour weeks in the nail bar. One was paid just £30 a month, while the other was paid nothing at all. 

The nail bar owner, Thu Huong Nguyen, known as Jenny, has now been jailed for 5 years in what police say is the first successful prosecution involving children since the 2015 Modern Slavery Act came into force. 

But officials have warned that the “desperately sad case” is only the tip of the iceberg, and that hundreds, if not thousands, of children are still at risk. 

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“These victims have had traumatic childhoods and were treated by traffickers as commodities — forced to live and work in unsuitable conditions, with little or no pay, and enduring both physical and verbal abuse,” Detective Investigator Charlotte Tucker, who led the investigation for Avon and Somerset police, said in a statement.

Tucker described the girls, who were from “impoverished backgrounds in Vietnam,” as “extremely vulnerable.” 

Jenny, 48, from Bath was sentenced alongside 29-year-old Viet Hoang Nguyen, known as Ken, from Burton-upon-Trent, who received a 4 year sentence at Stafford Crown Court.

They were found guilty of conspiring to arrange or facilitate the movement of people for labour exploitation and conspiring to require others to perform forced or compulsory labour.

Read more: This British Human Trafficking Survivor Was Forced to Have Sex 25 Times a Night — But Now Fights Modern Slavery

The judge described them as “devious and manipulative,” saying they treated the girls as commodities and exploited them for “pure economic greed.”

A second woman, Giang Huong Tran, known as Susan, 23, from Trent, was found guilty of conspiracy to require others to perform forced or compulsory labour and given a 2-year suspended sentence. 

The girls had been living at Jenny's home in Bath before they were discovered by police — one lived in a tiny room, reported the Guardian, while the other slept on a mattress in the attic. 

“They were so vulnerable they had no chance of running away,” continued Tucker. “They were not locked up, but had nowhere to go.” 

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The girls were brought into the UK in the back of a lorry. However, it isn’t known whether they were delivered to the nail bar directly, or whether they were left alone in Bath to be exploited.

Tragically, after the girls were discovered and taken into emergency foster care, they ran away. 

“Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in trafficking cases, as victims are conditioned to feel reliant on those controlling them and compelled to return to them,” said Tucker. 

Although the girls were re-trafficked, they were then traced to a nail bar in Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, where two other victims were also found. 

Read more: Scotland Is a Hotbed of Modern Slavery, Campaign Reveals

Police described the trafficking case as a “sophisticated money-making operation.” In a raid on Jenny’s home, they found £60,000 in £50 notes hidden inside a stuffed bear, as well as a cabinet full of designer handbags — some worth thousands of pounds. 

“She was making a lot of money using cheap or totally free labour,” added Tucker. “Stashing money away in teddy bears suggests she didn’t know what to do with all the cash she was making.” 

The extensive investigation involved five police forces as well as the National Crime Agency, as well as immigration officials , and staff from the charity Unseen, which works with modern slavery survivors. 

It’s hoped that the prosecution will send a message to other nail bar owners using children that modern slavery won’t be tolerated and those responsible will be punished. 

Read more: The UK Is a 'World Leader' In Fighting Slavery — But There's Still More Work to Do

However, it is also hoped that the case will alert nail bar customers to the possibility that young people are being exploited for the sake of their manicure. 

“We want to get the point across to the public that they are hiding their victims in plain sight,” she said. “When people go and get their nails done there can be a victim there who comes here for a better life, sometimes with debt bondage connected to families back home. They are trapped here.” 

Nail bars are a particular focus of anti-slavery investigations and campaigning, including Unseen's "Let's Nail It" campaign. 

In October, British MP Darren Jones showed off painted nails in the House of Commons in support of the campaign, describing modern slavery as a "real problem." 

He described nail bars as "one prominent example of enslavement taking place under our noses every day," and warned that the public "need to know how to spot the signs." 

Tucker said that warning signs in nail bars could be very young-looking members of staff, low prices, a rapid turnover of staff, or controlling behaviour by senior employees, and urged customers who have any suspicions to contact the police or the modern slavery helpline, on 08000 121 700.

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Demand Equity

‘Devious’ Nail Bar Owner Jailed for Forcing Trafficked Girls into Slavery in Britain

By Imogen Calderwood