A Hairy Situation: Hair Trade in Southeast Asia

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.

BY AMEERA

Perhaps one of the most meaningful and personal things regarded by a woman would be the hair on top of her head. Historically, hair has been a symbol of femininity, identity, wealth and beauty. For instance, in Ancient Egypt, indicators of status included the number of wigs one had. French women who had consorted with Germans in the 1940s had their heads shaven off as a symbol of disgrace. From a psychological point of view, ‘bad hair days’ could be the root cause of the deterioration of a woman’s self esteem. It comes to no surprise then, that hair is viewed as such a valuable commodity and that – in an era where immediate results are highly demanded – people are willing to pay high prices to come by instantaneous luscious locks, or hair extensions.

So where does this hair come from? Although the stigma from wearing fake hair has somewhat faded away, as applying extensions has become a common practice, the intricacies of the human hair trade remain shrouded in secrecy; most people do not know where their extensions come from, and most hairdressers do not question the origins of their hair supplies. Genuine hair of course, must originate from another human.

It is clear, by looking at its history, that the hair trade has always exploited poor women. Hair supplies used to come from European countries, wherever there were women who were willing to sell their hair for cash. But as these countries grew wealthier, fewer women were willing to give up their hair. Suppliers turned to South Korea in the 1960s and later China, but these two countries increased in wealth as well which has resulted in hair traders today being active in Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam – regions rife with political instability and destitution. Volatile atmospheres such as these provide the perfect opportunity for hair dealers to make decent profits by buying hair from women in poverty-stricken states for cheap and marking up selling prices later on for those willing to pay much higher for high quality hair.

In Myanmar, the hair trade is a lucrative business, with the country being the third largest exporter in the multi million-dollar industry. Global trade in human hair was worth $87.4 million in 2016. As women here hardly use chemical products and grow their hair out really long, these regions are popular spots for dealers to obtain highly demanded unprocessed hair (virgin) with all the strands going in the same direction (remy). In busy regions such as Hanoi, Vietnam and Yangon, Myanmar, it is possible for women who sell their hair to make a decent sum of money. However, hair dealers who are looking to lower their costs target women in poorer areas where they are desperate enough to sell their hair for any price offered. In Rakhine, Myanmar’s second poorest state, the hair trade is seen as a reliable source of income in times of uncertainty. Meanwhile in rural Vietnam, keeping and taking care of long hair is one of the last luxuries women can afford, and acts as a last resort to make ends meet.

Unscrupulous practices such as robbing women or children of their hair at knifepoint are common, but most dealers who want a large amount of hair prefer travelling region to region to buy virgin remy hair from disenfranchised women. In Vietnam, women work 16-hour shifts to meet ends meet, and when they are desperate enough, they accept the $3 hair dealers offer for their hair. These women are seriously underpaid, however, for salons in the UK charge nearly 600 – 2000 pounds for a human head full of extensions.

Aside from the locks of hair harvested directly from the heads of women, supplies of hair are obtained from ‘comb waste’, strands of hair that fall out from women’s heads, swept from doorways, collected from brushes and rubbish heaps. Emma Tarlo, the author of Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair visited workshops and homes in India and Myanmar. She observed women who made a living untangling hairballs and sorting strands based on their lengths to be later processed to become extensions. It is “painstaking work”, and pays for very little. She tells the story of meeting an old Burmese woman who worked untangling balls of comb waste who “had no idea where the hair balls were from or what they were for”. It is bizarre to think that these people who were doing tedious, labor-intensive jobs had no inkling about the multi million-dollar industry they were involved in.

The increased awareness of the extent of exploitation involved in the human hair trade has resulted in hair companies’ shifts towards more transparent and ethical methods of obtaining their hair sources. Most brands have opted to acquire them from India, where Indian women often donate their hair for religious rites. In addition, start-up companies like Remy New York have begun to offer women higher prices for their hair. Interviews with women in rural Vietnam revealed that the highest they were usually offered for their hair was $15, while the founder of Remy New York, Dan Choi, offered average rates of $65 – $200. This much higher amount would allow women to cease working 16-hour shifts and even build a farm with poultry to sustain their families.

The human hair trade is an intriguing tale that sheds light on how the disadvantaged are regularly taken advantage of in order to provide the more privileged with what they regard as necessities. Nevertheless, its existence has provided income and opportunities for many, which is why it does not necessarily mean that the hair trade has to cease. Rather, the trade should be strictly regulated to ensure ethically sourced hair. Also, transparency in where hair is sourced from should exist so that buyers know exactly from where their hair originates. The least that could be done for rural, developing communities is to put a stop to any practices that exploit and deprive them of opportunities that could give them better chances in faring well in life.

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