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Battle for lashes

The price of Western beauty may be too high for the 100,000 workers who toil in central Java’s lucrative false-eyelash industry

Text and photography by Michael Eko Hardianto

Flashbulbs fire. The audience rises as one. The model departs to an ovation. But behind every eyelash flutter in the fashion industry and beyond lie the untold stories of invisible low-paid workers.

 

Number crunch:the manager of an eyelash factory counts how many pairs of lashes each worker has produced that day, noting it down.

Number crunch: the manager of an eyelash factory counts how many pairs of lashes each worker has produced that day, noting it down.

 

In Purbalingga, central Java, numerous small workshops represent the first step in a global supply chain. Almost all workers are women, all of them scraping a living by measuring and cutting artificial hair to the requisite size for false eyelashes, and then knitting them onto a thin plastic thread. The job requires intense concentration, often leaving workers with sore eyes and backs. Their financial remuneration for such monotonous work is about $0.04 per pair, sometimes lower. By the time the product reaches Western consumers, the price they pay has often reached $10 a pair – a mark-up of 2,400%.

 

Cutting it fine:workers trim the eyelashes according to each company’s requirements

Cutting it fine: workers trim the eyelashes according to each company’s requirements

 

According to the Guardian, factories in Purbalingga supply some of the world’s biggest beauty and cosmetic brands, including L’Oréal, Mac and Maybelline.

 

Laying in wait (left):rows of completed eyelashes wait to be packaged and shipped across the globe

Laying in wait: rows of completed eyelashes wait to be packaged and shipped across the globe

 

Indonesian eyelash exports were estimated to be worth $210m in 2012, with Purbalingga very much the operational hub. The town has a population of about 850,000 people, but is home to almost 20 major factories, with about 100,000 locals employed in the industry, a third of them reportedly being paid far less than the local minimum wage of $73 a month.

 

Back-breaking (above): employees work long hours and suffer from sore eyes and back pain

Back-breaking: employees work long hours and suffer from sore eyes and back pain

 

The combination of such low wages and relatively skilled workers – the town has a history of making hair extensions and other similar products – is what attracted the factory owners, almost all of whom are South Korean, to Purbalingga.

 

Girl problems:the factory manager does a quality-control check on a bunch of partly completed lashes  Of the 100,000 workers who toil in the false-eyelash industry in Purbalingga, more than 90% of them are women (left). In the official eyelash factories, these women earn a minimum wage that is less than half of what is paid in the capital, Jakarta

Girl problems: the factory manager does a quality-control check on a bunch of partly completed lashes Of the 100,000 workers who toil in the false-eyelash industry in Purbalingga, more than 90% of them are women

 

With few alternative options, the women of Purbalingga will likely sit at their benches for years, even decades, to come. Under the glare of fluorescent lighting they work, hastily undertaking the business of beautifying faraway faces.

 

In production: of the 100,000 workers who toil in the false-eyelash industry in Purbalingga, more than 90% of them are women (left). In the official eyelash factories, these women earn a minimum wage that is less than half of what is paid in the capital, Jakarta

In production: In the official eyelash factories, these women earn a minimum wage that is less than half of what is paid in the capital, Jakarta

 

A bit hairy: half-finished sets of false eyelashes wait to be inspected by the factory’s manager before she tallies the workers’ wages

A bit hairy: half-finished sets of false eyelashes wait to be inspected by the factory’s manager before she tallies the workers’ wages

 

Finished product: eyelashes such as these are made for big-name brands such as Katy Perry for Eylure. Due to the influence of stars such as Perry, the false-eyelash industry is worth more than $179m in the UK alone

Finished product: eyelashes such as these are made for big-name brands such as Katy Perry for Eylure. Due to the influence of stars such as Perry, the false-eyelash industry is worth more than $179m in the UK alone

 

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