Hair Traffic

Your extensions look hot—except maybe for the roots

Henan Rebecca's website states that the corporation employs "over 1,960 employees including 60 technicians and 80 managing staffs," some with "master and doctor degrees." But it's not the masters of economics who fumigate, acid soak, or bundle; nor, according to activists, do they work the machinery to produce the synthetic hair Rebecca also exports.

Advocacy groups allege that brutally treated detainees from at least three Henan Province work camps take care of that. A 2004 petition to alert the Department of Homeland Security of alleged abuses, put together by the Boston-based World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (an officially banned religious group that advocates a mixture of Buddhist thought, yoga-like exercise, apocalyptic belief, and very conservative social ideals), offered the following testimony of an escaped detainee. It reads:

"During my time at the No. 3 Labor Camp in Henan Province, I was forced to work as a slave, mostly making hair products for Rebecca Hair Products, Inc. in Xuchang City . . . policemen forced me to work until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., not allowing me to sleep; if I did not finish the quota they would beat me with electronic batons and/or tie me and hang me up with ropes."

illustration: Jonathan Barkat

Nothing came of the petition, but activists hope that the ongoing investigative work of Jamil Anderlini, a reporter for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, could make a difference.

Saying he posed as a wig maker, this past summer Anderlini visited Henan Rebecca and slipped into a couple of Henan Province work camps. He tells the Voice he chatted up the work camp guards and a few low-level paid workers who he says "told me proudly that they process hair for Henan Rebecca." When interro-gated by the higher-ups, he says he got tossed out and fled to Hong Kong out of fear of being detained himself.

Henan Rebecca says Anderlini (whose work on the subject is up for two reporting awards) and the rights group are misrepresenting the facts, and in a phone interview with the Voice, Hu Liping, an administrator in Henan Rebecca's investor relations department, said she remembers giving Anderlini a tour of the factory. Through a translator she told the Voice that there is no relationship between labor camps and Henan Rebecca. Describing herself as a "common worker," she asked rhetorically, "Why would we use prison labor? We have our own workers." When asked about allegations of torture at the behest of Henan Rebecca, she laughed, then requested that further inquiries be made in writing.

In fact, Henan Rebecca issued a largely repetitive written rebuttal last August. Here is an excerpt:

"Henan Rebecca Hair Products Inc. always abides by national law, rules and also the international law. The report about using inmates to make hair products is not true. Firstly, to produce hair products needs lots of equipments and the working conditions. . . . How can it install the production system in the prison? It cannot!"

Activists say it's hypocritical for the U.S. to chastise China about human rights while at the same time financing (however indirectly) their infamous prison work camp system. The AFL-CIO (which in 2004 filed an unfair trade practices petition against China with the U.S. Trade Commission) says that allowing these Chinese products—be they machinery, hair extensions, or Christmas tree lights—into the country hurts Chinese and American workers alike, and, in the petition, compares life for the average Chinese factory worker to that of black South Africans under apartheid. The U.S. Trade Commission ultimately rejected the petition, explaining, says Thea Lee, chief international economist of the AFL-CIO, that the Bush administration thinks it better to urge China to change while working with it.

The U.S.-China Security Review Commission, a federal advisory committee, thinks punitive action should be taken against Henan Rebecca if the allegations prove true, and the fact that Anderlini discovered that several international financial institutions—ING, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, and HSBC—are among the publicly traded corporation's top 10 shareholders has upped the stakes.

Big Money

photo: Shiho Fukada

Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and HSBC had no comment, but Deutsche Bank's Ted Myers told the Voice that his company only acts on behalf of investors. Dailah Nihot, a spokesperson for ING, said they verbally informed their clients of the controversy when they learned of it, adding that "corporate responsibility is a fundamental part of ING's strategy" and that "ethical, social, and environmental factors play an integral role in our business decisions."

Nevertheless, Mila Rosenthal, director of the business and human rights program at Amnesty International, says the banks "risk losing their credibility"—ING and HSBC in particular. The two corporations are signatories to the Equator Principles— a set of environmental and social ideals financial institutions have pledged to consider when making investments. Although the principles, as spelled out by participating banks, don't apply to third-party investments, Rosenthal thinks it is disingenuous for financial institutions to pledge to consider social goals only when a narrow definition of that commitment is applied.

The U.S.-China Security Review Commission's chairman, C. Richard D'Amato, fired off a letter on committee stationery to the commissioner of U.S. customs and border protection when he learned of the allegations against Henan Rebecca. Dissatisfied with what he called a "perfunctory" response, he then sounded off to senators Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, and Bill Frist, citing federal law, chapter and verse, when it comes to imports even suspected of being made with prison labor.

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