The expensive fake eyelashes favoured by glamourous women the world over are made in Purbalingga, Indonesia, where workers are paid as little as a dirham a day, Gethin Chamberlain writes
Forty lashes, two dirhams
When she has done this 60 times, she will have finished the first of the 20 pairs of false eyelashes she will make today. She is wearing a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “We make it sweet”.
The sight of a woman making false eyelashes is hardly unusual in Purbalingga; this little town in the Indonesian province of Central Java is, after all, the hub of the global trade, home to at least 18 major factories (in a town of just 850,000 people) and countless smaller workshops and home workers.
Here, they make everything needed for big brands such as the Katy Perry line of false eyelashes, and also make individual lashes applied in the world’s beauty salons.
What does make 20-year-old Kuswati unusual is that she has no arms. She works patiently with her toes, first separating out five hairs from the bundle on the side of her wooden loom with the long, hooked needle held with her right foot. She clasps the hair between the toes of her left foot, working it deftly into a loop and knotting it onto the thread.
What is less unusual about Kuswati is how little she gets paid for all this effort: just 180 Indonesian rupiahs (Dh0.06) for every piece she finishes (enough for one pair of eyelashes).
The factory owners – almost all of them South Korean – say that they settled on Purbalingga because the area already had a history of making hair products such as hair extensions.
But critics of the industry say that the real appeal of Purbalingga is the low wages they have to pay there. Even the local monthly minimum wage of 896,500 rupiahs (Dh290) is less than half the rate in the capital, Jakarta.
Many of the women – 90 per cent of the workers are female – earn far less than the legal rate.
“It is impossible to make enough money,” says Kuswati. I only get paid 180 rupiahs for each one because I can’t finish them [she can’t cut the string and needs help from her mother].”
Making eyelashes is the last thing she wanted to end up doing.
“It gives me a pain in the back. I work from 9am to 4pm, but it makes my back very painful.
“I’d like to go back to school and study again, maybe to do accounting,” she says. “I want to run a restaurant or a store and become a small businesswoman to make my parents happy.”
But she laughs at the idea of ever being able to manage it on wages of Dh1.17 a day.
“My T-shirt cost 30,000 rupiahs [Dh9.70] and my shorts cost 50,000 (Dh16.17). I had to save for a year to buy them.
“We often ask for more money because the price is too low, and after working for a long time we get tired. We don’t earn enough.”
Official figures show that Indonesian exports of false eyelashes and wigs last year were worth Dh772 million. The industry is estimated to employ about 100,000 in and around Purbalingga, and last year the Purbalingga Manpower Agency complained that a third of them were being paid less than the minimum wage.
Among their number is Friti, 20, who sits on the floor of her shack, knitting eyelashes while keeping half an eye on her two-month-old lying on a blanket next to her.
She gets about Dh0.10 per finished piece, delivering them to the nearby workshop where she worked until she was seven months pregnant.
Friti is tiny, with long, dark hair. When the power inside her shack fails, she moves outside, shoos chickens off a bench and resumes her work.
“I finished school, but did not have the money to go on in higher education, though I would have liked to. I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “Now I think I will always be doing this because I don’t know what else to do.”
She says the work is not good for her health. “Sometimes I feel dizzy and I have problems with my eyes, but I can’t afford glasses.
She can make about 32 pieces a day, she says, often working from 8am to midnight to accommodate the frequent breaks to look after the baby. “Sometimes it is not enough. We have no savings and now we have to start buying formula milk for the baby.
Lash-loving celebrities such as Perry, Cheryl Cole and Lady Gaga have helped turn false lashes into a multimillion-pound industry and attract representatives from some of the biggest names in fashion – Eylure, L’Oréal, Shu Uemura, MAC, Kiss, Make Up For Ever and Maybelline – to Purbalingga in search of people who can make them for the right price.
It is a labour-intensive process. Natural and synthetic hair are both used, but the natural hair has first to be boiled and dyed. Then the individual strands of hair are cut to length of about 20 to 25 centimetres before the knitting process.
After that, the lashes are ironed, cut and rolled to give them the right curl. Then they are placed in an oven to set the curl and then there is more cutting to achieve the desired style. Finally, they go to the finishing section where they are packaged.
The main player in Purbalingga is the PT Royal Korindah company, which manufactures lashes for some of the biggest names in the industry. Korindah prides itself on the quality of its product, and insists that it pays the 4,000 workers in its main factory at least the legal minimum wage. Workers start at 7.30am and work through until 4.30pm, with breaks. They work an eight-hour day, five days a week, and receive 12 days annual holiday. They might average seven to 10 hours a month of overtime.
“It is mostly women. Men are not patient enough to do the job,” says the factory manager Very Anjarwinarto.
Most start in the factory at 18 and work until they are about 40 “because after that their eyes go”. When asked to comment further, PT Royal Korindah declined.
The staff sit on benches in large rooms, working to the sound of Indonesian pop music. The workers are mostly young, and each is concentrating. Their benches are lit by fluorescent lights suspended a few feet above their heads.
They can make a single strip in about 10 minutes, depending on the complexity of the lash. Anjarwinarto says they average about 30 to 40 pieces a day, using tweezers to manoeuvre the individual hairs into place. A worker on the minimum legal wage and averaging 30 pieces (each one enough for a pair of lashes) in a day would get the equivalent Dh0.48 for each one.
But while much of the finishing has to be done in the factories, smaller workshops and women from home are often used for the initial process of knitting the hair onto the twine.
The factories argue that production is lower here and the pay rate reflects that, but there is little doubt that a significant proportion of the millions of lashes leaving Purbalingga every year are produced, at least in part, with the labour of women who were paid considerably less than the legal minimum wage.
Setyanti, 34, has worked in one of these workshops in the village of Arenan, on the outskirts of Purbalingga, for four years – a “partnership” workshop, producing for Royal Korindah. She produces a pay slip bearing the company’s name and showing wages of 250,300 rupiahs for 15 days – little more than half the legal minimum wage.
“Most of the time, it is not enough,” she says. “We spend it all and cannot save. My husband is at home not working, and I have three children.”
She and the other 86 girls there work in a single-storey building with roughly plastered walls and fluorescent strips suspended from the ceiling above narrow wooden tables. There are eight girls to one table, sitting on benches crammed tightly together.
The girls are aged between 17 and 40 says Kamisah, the supervisor, and earnings start at about 400,000 rupiahs a month.
They work from 7.30pm to 3.30pm Monday to Friday and half a day on Saturday. A member of staff from the factory visits them every day to collect their work.
Most of the girls are wearing blue T-shirts with white collars and PT Royal Korindah embroidered on the left breast.
The work is not easy, says Kamisah, but it is the only employment around and at least the workshop is close to home. She has no idea why they are not paid more.
The girls giggle when they are asked if they ever wear false lashes, demanding to know how they could afford it.
It is a question Friti, knitting away in her home a few hundred metres away, has also been pondering. When she learns that a single pair of lashes can sell in the West for Dh35, her jaw drops.
“How can I only get 300 rupiah for every one I make?” she says.
She works quickly, looping the hairs around a white thread strung between the nails of her loom and tensioned with an elastic band. She cuts the thread and looks at her finished piece.
Maybe one day, she says. “I’ve never worn false eyelashes, but I think I’d quite like to try a pair, just to know how it feels.”
Gethin Chamberlain is a journalist based in southern India.