How women in poverty are supplying America’s market for hair


Wilson stated that beyond a cut for cash transactions, Arjuni provided jobs to young women who were victims of sex-trafficking within the country. “Some of our NGO partners specialized in extracting women from sex-trafficking,” she said, referring to nongovernmental organizations. After the women received therapy services for the trauma of sexual exploitation, Wilson explained that her former shop taught the women how to manufacture the collected hair as a job. She said they also took English and math classes and had opportunities to become managers.

“Sex trafficking is still on the rise,” said Am Sam Ath, chief of technical investigation at the human rights NGO Licadho. “The issue is still a concern for the government and particulary for the tourists who seek sex-trafficking in Cambodia.”

He said many of the victims are younger than 18, and technology is affecting sexual exploitation. “The government should provide more education to (Cambodian) people on how to prevent sex-trafficking and prevention should be done in the tourism places.”

Arguably, the dire situations experienced by many Cambodian women are represented by each strand of their hair that is shipped across the world, ending up on the heads of many women in the United States.

Jiachuan Wu / NBC News / International Trade Centre calculations based on United Nations Comtrade and ITC statistics

Black women in America were Wilson’s top clients. A 2019 Mintel Consumer Research report showed that black consumers, particularly women, are moving toward protective styles, including braids with extensions, weaves and wigs. Protective styles require purchases of hair, human or synthetic.

According to Mintel, there is no UPC code on extension sales, making it difficult to track the origins of the hair.

Wilson said many of her clients admitted that they couldn’t find Cambodia on a map. The mystique created a “trendy” allure about the country, which was attractive to customers. “In the world of beauty, it was something different,” Wilson said.

Arjuni closed in 2017, and Wilson now runs Mane Moguls for hair industry entrepreneurs looking for more insight into the hair extension business. Her program includes a module about ethics on the ground.

Still, fair trade and transparency aren’t enough to fully combat poverty in Cambodia, according to Sen Karuna. “I don’t want to see our people falling poor until they have to sell their hair, but I want the government to quickly start thinking about the standard of living of the people,” he said. “But if this hair trade occurs, the government should think about the people. We should not allow excessive exploitation to take place.“

As for the future of the hair industry, Wilson predicts that synthetic hair technology will catch up and make fake hair indistinguishable from the real thing. “And for those that are insistent upon the real thing, there will always be some authentic human hair around, but you will pay a pretty penny for it,” she said.

In the meantime, Sariem, Sreyvy and Lim Khim are three Cambodian women whose hair might now be for sale online, in hair supply shops and salons — or resting atop a stranger’s head halfway across the world.

“It’s so easy to pick up that hair and not give it a thought about where it came from,” Wilson said.

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