Out of your hairbrush to China

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Seraj* and Sohel* are friends and business associates. However, their business is one that is shrouded in a veil of secrecy.

They live in a modest two bedroom house in Dewanbari when in Dhaka and travel frequently for their clandestine work.

While Seraj is a plump little man who likes to have his shirt tucked in, wear a sweater vest, and his love of paan (betel leaf) stains his mouth in all its red glory on weekdays, Sohel likes to keep it casual. The slimmer and taller friend wears a lungi and shirt and isn’t afraid to speak his mind and state the facts.

The duo’s Dewanbari residence looks from the outside like any other residential building that lines the narrow streets. Inside, however, it’s a different story. There are neither pictures nor much furniture. But a messy bed with a mosquito net leaves little room for a stool or two and a table. “We’re not exactly fathers of families, really bachelors, so please excuse the mess,” says Sohel as he gestures toward the bedroom.

On the table are strands of hair neatly tied with rubber bands. Strange, sure, but only if outsiders are unaware of the intricate and mysterious hair trading business these two “hair agents” depend on for a living.

According to data available on Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh website, Bangladesh exported over US$35 million worth of human hair and wigs in fiscal year 2020-2021.

However, these statistics do not include Seraj and Sohel’s business, which is unregistered. And they are not alone. According to Sohel, there are approximately 500 men in the greater Faidabad area who are part of the same business.

“We were thieves and robbers in our previous lives, but when we discovered this profession, we changed. It’s more profitable, with no risk, no crime,” Sohel said.

During the insightful conversation, the two pairs of beady eyes kept exchanging glances, almost as if to make sure the other person was okay with what was being shared. Sohel spoke more freely while Seraj seemed more reserved.

The hair trading business is divided into a meticulous system and shifts, they explained.

The maze and the actors of commerce

First, discarded hair from households and beauty salons is collected by a ‘dealer’. In many cases, this peddler trades toys and figurines or chocolates for discarded hair. “We have individuals as such in almost all districts and Upazila,” Seraj said, “we have been doing this for about 30 years. The system has been expanded over time.”

The peddler gets the money for the toys etc. from the hair agents. And by giving away products worth 1,000 Tk, an agent can collect 1 kg of hair worth 5,000 Tk.

Seraj claims to be a game-changing hair remedy. “I was the first entrepreneur to introduce this idea in 1993,” he said with confidence and pride.

Once the trader collects the “raw” hair, each trader has a specific location where they send it to agents like Seraj and Sohel. “In our case, we pick it up from Lalon. He works in the Mirpur area and then he comes to this side of the city,” Seraj said.

Then the collected hair — “what we call raw, tangled hair,” Sohel added — is sent to villages and towns. “Here, women are used to detangle the hair,” explains Sohel. “We employ many women in our village towns like Sherpur.”

The hair is detangled with shampoo, washing powder, kerosene oil and water. The workers clean the hair and straighten it. The strands are sorted by length using a large comb-like tool with rows of eight-inch spikes. After sorting, they are tied together with a rubber band.

According to the hair agents, a worker can detangle 100 grams of hair per day and only gets Tk100. The highest wages among the country’s hair factories for hair processing are in Sherpur, where processing one kilogram costs 800k.

The operation is multi-stage and widespread. “Between the two of us,” Sohel said, gesturing with his hands, “we have about 2,200 employees. Heck, Seraj has at least 1,000 workers under him.”

Since 2000, hair processing plants have been developed in some villages of Chuadanga, Kushtia, Naogoan, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Sherpur, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Tangail and Gazipur districts. While Seraj has staff in Shepur, Sohel has a base in Chuadanga.

And how much do you make from this business? “See, it’s best not to share numbers and numbers. We like to maintain discretion,” said a giggling Sohel. Even after repeated attempts, the duo refused to budge. They held on to their guns, out of discretion.

There are two major markets, one in Chuadanga and the other in Naogaon, from which Faidabad hair agents source the non-Remy (lower quality and cheaper price) ponytails they sell. And there is REMY hair, the most sought after.

From the village towns, the unraveled hair makes its way back to the city of Dhaka, mainly Faidabad, Uttara. It is then processed and made ready for sale – either in bulk or after going through another step. It is used to make hair caps – a variation of hair wigs.

“We call them hats, the West calls them wigs,” Seraj said. The hats are then sold to interested buyers, while the bulk of the hair is usually sold to other hair agents who want to make hats themselves.

“Would you like to see how it is processed?” asked Sohel. “We can show you part of the process. Only if there is no photo.”

In the hair workshops

There is a small workshop just a few buildings away. This time, Seraj led to the one-story, two-bedroom house. A surveillance camera was mounted above the entrance gate. And from the beginning, the traces of the hair business were unmistakable.

By the door was a glass case with yellow lightbulbs in it. And of course, strands of hair and strands of hair lay in neatly sorted chunks. “These are dried, part of the ‘processing’ is washing the hair,” Seraj explained.

In the barely 400 square meter room about 10 men, maybe in their twenties, sat arranged in a rectangular shape. They wrapped the hair while at the other end of the room there was a plank with about six men standing around it. They all had a steamer in their hands and were squeezing their hair.

“This is where the hair is ‘packaged’ on calendar boards. After the hair is steamed, it’s placed on cardboard,” said Sohel, who appeared from behind. The same hair is then used to make hats.

In the next room there was a pile of hair five feet high – and possibly seven feet wide. These were sorted neatly and tied together at one end with rubber bands. “It’s a very small unit,” Sohel explained. “The real factories and workshops are in Faidabad,” he said.

The duo led to another contact, another hair agent named Akter. The Dewanbari workshop is about 15 minutes by rickshaw from Faidabad Bazaar.

Akter was even less forward-looking than Seraj, whose apartment resembled the same furnishings as Seraj and Sohel’s, except that his “workshop” adjacent to his bedroom was larger. Interestingly, his bedroom looked like a control room, with a monitor showing multiple CCTV feeds.

Akter’s workshop includes a room with hair sorted and stacked on the wall with marks indicating the length of each strand of hair. One of the shortest lengths in space – 6 inches – weighed 0.8 grams.

What is your production like? “It depends on the demand. But in general we produce 30 kilos of hair,” he said. Pointing to the room, he added, “So in a week,” Akter said.

The whole market is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else and what they are producing. There are manufacturers of hats of different lengths and styles, and in some workshops even different colors.

Foreigners in Faidabad

Although Seraj and Sohel confirmed that 90% of their buyers are foreigners and that they come to the market to shop from 7am in the morning, one foreign buyer was still spotted around noon this Wednesday. He may have been escorted to the caps (i.e. wigs) by hair agents.

After a few minutes, the shopper and his escort disappeared down a narrow corridor, perhaps to make a purchase. And so the hair cap is sold to a foreign buyer and eventually exported out of the country.

And just like the aforementioned duo, 90% of Akter’s buyers are foreigners.

The main reason that allows foreigners to buy hair in the country and then export it is the “unregistered” hair factories and workshops run by hair agents like Seraj, Sohel or Akter. “If we want to be registered, we have to increase the price of our product [because of tax the hair agents would have to pay to the government] and lose our customers in the process,” explains Sohel.

Your business is based on discretion and secrecy. “We’re always hesitant to speak to members of the media or law enforcement officials,” Sohel added, “but this is a business we’ve built on the hairs you shed.”

While the duo and actor all claim to be members of committees – an example being Bedategharia Chul Bebosayee Samabay Samity (Human Hair Traders’ Cooperative) in Sherpur district – they remain unregistered. And they would like to keep it that way.

Names have been changed to protect identity. Sadiqur Rahman also contributed to this report.

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