‘Black gold’: How global demand for hair products is linked to forced labor in Chinese camps
For the past decade, Mikayla Lowe Davis has been braiding and styling hair for her customers.
“The first thing people see a lot of times is our hair,” she says. “We have to represent our crown and be confident with wearing it.”
The 29-year-old stylist, who owns Mikki Styles Salon, is braiding in synthetic hair to the head of a customer in Arlington, Texas, a process which takes several hours and costs upwards of $115 (Ksh.12,489).
“It helps them to become more empowered,” Lowe Davis says of her customers. “It gives them confidence when they can see how beautiful they are, how beautiful their hair is.
Lowe Davis has a degree in biology, but the creative side of the hair industry drew her in. She sources products at beauty supply stores — a fixture of most African American communities.
“Black women spend so much money on hair care products,” says Frankesha Watkins, an MBA-educated entrepreneur who owns the BPolished Beauty Supply store in Arlington.
“I learned that from this pandemic, no matter what’s going on, people want their hair to be nice.”
In fact, the business of hair extensions is booming, according to Tiffany Gill, associate professor of history at Rutgers University and author of the book “Beauty Shop Politics.”
The Black hair care market in the United States was estimated to be worth more than $2.5 billion in 2018 by research company Mintel, and globally, the commodity of human hair is known as “black gold” — due to the continued rise in its value.
The majority of hair products come from Asia, mostly China.
Now, some of the Chinese factories supplying thousands of kilograms of hair to the American market are under scrutiny by the United States government, which is alleging the use of forced labor in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang.
Rights groups say up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps since 2016.
Beijing has called the camps “vocational training centers” and says the expansion of factory jobs campaigners have linked to the camps is part of a “poverty alleviation” program.
In September, US Customs and Border Protection announced a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on any incoming shipments of hair from the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park in southern Xinjiang.
That followed two earlier WROs on companies registered within the same area, including the June seizure of 13 tons of human hair worth $800,000 from Lop County Meixin Hair Products — which is now subject to a criminal investigation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and a previous order in May blocking imports from Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories.
The two companies did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but the Information Office of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region faxed a response to CNN regarding the earlier WROs, expressing “severe condemnation” about the “barbaric act” against “private enterprises” that “provide opportunities for local ethnic minority people to achieve employment and help people get rid of poverty.”
Until earlier this year, Hetian Haolin had been a major supplier of synthetic hair products to a Texas-based company called I&I Hair. Its main product, EZBraid, is the top-selling hair braid at BPolished.
“When I found out about the forced labor, honestly I was shocked,” Watkins says. “I don’t want to participate or support anything that goes against what I personally believe in.”
I&I Hair stopped shipping from Hetian Haolin in early 2020, when the company learned about the allegations of forced labor.
“I don’t think a lot of us even spent time looking into these issues of internment camps,” William Choe, digital marketing manager for I&I Hair told CNN. “We were oblivious to it, (so) I believe that a lot of other people in the industry are as well.”
I&I cancelled all orders from the factory, and later cut ties with their agency, KCA Global in South Korea, which I&I said managed their supply chain.
“I do think that they’ve done their due diligence to make things right,” Watkins says, referring to I&I.
OS Hair, another hair company based in Duluth, Georgia, which makes a product called Spetra Braid, was also receiving large shipments of hair products from Hetian Haolin until April this year.
OS Hair has also now changed its supplier, and said a South Korean company, Selim Fiber, arranged the deal with the Xinjiang factories.
A company executive from Selim Fiber, who did not want to be named, said it knew nothing about forced labor allegations, and only shipped the raw materials to the factory under a contract with KCA Global — the same agency that had worked with I&I Hair.
“We were initially shocked to find out about forced child labor and prison internment camps regarding our products.”
OS Hair, also known as
Optimum Solution Group
Han Hyun-jung, CEO of KCA Global, told CNN it was shocking to hear of the forced labor allegations at Hetian Haolin.
He said the company regrets what happened and no longer works with the manufacturer.
Han said KCA Global had signed a contract with a factory in Xuchang, eastern China, which later moved some production to Xinjiang without them realizing.
He added that the manufacturer also told KCA Global that “they were acting properly according to the poverty alleviation project.”
Both I&I Hair and OS Hair denied news reports published in July saying their orders were part of the 13-ton seizure, saying they never ordered from Lop County Meixin Hair Products, and had already canceled their orders from Xinjiang months earlier.
Shipping records obtained by CNN show that two other US-based companies, Sky Trading in New Jersey, and Global Morado in Los Angeles, received shipments this year from Lop County Meixin. Neither company responded to CNN’s request for comment.
As companies attempt to clean up their supply chains, stylist Mikayla Lowe Davis says she hopes the seizures will create a wake-up call for the industry, and push manufacturers to be more transparent about the origin of hair products entering the US.
“A lot of times it’s not made clear on the packaging on where exactly it came from,” she says. “I definitely don’t want it to come from slave labor.”
Associate Professor Tiffany Gill says she finds it particularly sad that the accusations of forced labor are associated with products used primarily by the African American community given “the long, painful history and legacy of forced labor that was a part of American chattel slavery.”
But the blame has to lie with the manufacturers, she says.
“We have to be careful not to put the entire onus for ending these exploitative practices on consumers,” she added.
“So much of it is shrouded in secrecy, that we don’t know the means of production, that we don’t know who is producing what we wear on our hair.”
Putting the burden of responsibility onto manufacturers and importers to prove the absence of forced labor in their supply chains is the goal of a new US bill — the ‘Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act’ — which passed with rare bipartisan support in the House of Representatives on September 22, by a margin of 406-3.
Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said “China is strongly indignant and opposed” to the bill which “maliciously smears the human rights situation in Xinjiang.”
‘Everyone’s hair was cut short’
The US accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang are part of a wider pattern of alleged human rights violations by the Chinese government in the region.
Despite being the largest of China’s regions and provinces, Xinjiang has a comparatively small population of just 22 million.
It is home to a variety of minority groups, of which the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs are the largest. Uyghurs, alongside other Turkic groups including Kazakh and Kyrgyz people, are culturally and linguistically distinct from Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group.
After a series of deadly attacks in recent years, authorities have taken an increasingly tough approach in combating what they claim is a violent separatist movement among minority groups in Xinjiang.
This view has been used to justify strict curbs on religious freedoms alongside sweeping surveillance measures, including the installation of security checkpoints across the region.
The US says this policy has culminated in the creation of a network of shadowy mass internment camps, intended to subdue and assimilate Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities through coercive political indoctrination, claims China vehemently denies.
The US State Department estimates that as many as 2 million people could have passed through the camps system since 2017.
CNN has documented multiple testimonies of people who escaped from the camps, including women who say they were tortured, sexually assaulted, and forced to undergo sterilization procedures – all accusations which China has denied.
Leaked Chinese documents seen by CNN show that people can be sent to a camp for perceived infractions which range from wearing a headscarf or a long beard, holding a passport, or having too many children.
Former Xinjiang resident Yerzhan Kurman had moved to Kazakhstan with his family in 2015. He returned to visit his mother in 2018, but was then swiftly taken into a “political educational school.”
“They came in the middle of the night and took me to the camp,” says the 42-year-old. “They handcuffed us, put a bag over our head.”
Kurman, who is ethnically Kazakh, says he was placed in a cell with nine other men, with whom he shared a bucket as a toilet.
They were monitored continuously by cameras, weren’t allowed to talk to each other, and had to ask permission to use the bucket. If they disobeyed, they were punished by being made to stand upright all night, or denied food, he says.
They also got in trouble if they refused to sing the Chinese national anthem up to seven times a day, he says. If they failed Chinese language tests, their detention could be extended.