Victoria and Albert gallery's cheap fashion exhibit stirs debate over plight of workers

Museum refuses to bat an eyelash with controversial new acquisitions

by Gethin Chamberlain

The Observer

The Victoria and Albert Museum has tossed a grenade into the debate on the ethics of cheap fashion with two controversial acquisitions. The museum wants to add a pair of Katy Perry false eyelashes to its collection, along with some jeans sold by cut-rate clothing retailer, Primark, and made in the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed in Dhaka last year.

The planned new exhibits at the London museum are part of a new “rapid response” strategy aimed at securing items that have become newsworthy. But their inclusion promises to be an embarrassment to the companies that sell them, focusing attention on the low wages paid to workers.

One of the main reasons for their selection is that they are made by workers who are paid minimal, albeit legal, wages that anti-poverty campaigners say are significantly lower than a living wage would be in their countries of residence. The Primark jeans were made by Bangladeshi workers earning $39 a month or about 20 cents an hour. Women who make Eylure’s Katy Perry range of false eyelashes in Indonesia start on about $82 per month — equivalent to 48 cents an hour, or about 13 cents for every pair they make. The lashes sell for £6 ($9.75) in the U.K.

Kieran Long, senior V&A curator in charge of the collection, has argued that “ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do.”

The decision to acquire the Primark jeans was made in response to the Rana Plaza factory disaster in April. More than 1,100 people died after workers were told to remain at their stations despite large cracks appearing in the walls.

Long — who presents the BBC TV programs Restoration Home and The House that GBP100K Built — said he decided he also wanted the eyelashes in the collection after reading about the way in which they were made.

“Globalized consumerism is a phenomenon that deliberately removes production to a distant location, and the making of many of the things we buy is therefore invisible to us,” he said.

“It should come as little surprise that exploitation of the workforce sometimes ensues. The V&A isn’t a campaigning body, but its task is to collect for posterity and display critical moments in the history of manufacturing and design.”

He said the lashes were “quite astonishing pieces of craftsmanship,” but that discovering the conditions in which they were made had convinced him that the museum — which courted controversy last year when it bought prototypes of the first 3-D printed gun — should help to deepen the public’s understanding of the process.

“The V&A has many objects from history made by enslaved workers, or those under various kinds of oppression. Sometimes we tell those stories, and sometimes we do not. I think future researchers will look back on the early 21st century and want to find serious research about how things were made in a globalized consumer economy.”

Eylure’s parent company is adamant that the Katy Perry range of lashes is made legally by its supplier, PT Royal Korindah, inside the firm’s factory in the town of Purbalingga in central Java, Indonesia. But questions have been raised about Korindah’s operations and the conduct of the wider false eyelash industry in Indonesia. Stars such as Perry and Cheryl Cole have helped to turn false eyelashes into a $180 million-a-year industry in the U.K. alone.

Many of the biggest names in fashion source from factories in Purbalingga, including L’Oreal, Shu Uemura, MAC, Kiss, Make Up For Ever and Maybelline. The small town in central Java has proved attractive to the South Korean-dominated industry because of its comparatively low legal minimum wage, less than half that in the capital, Jakarta.

It is a job for young women, requiring total concentration; workers say it leaves them with sore eyes and aching limbs and backs. By the time they reach 40, their eyesight is too poor, according to the Royal Korindah factory manager, Very Anjarwinarto.

Workers in Royal Korindah’s main factory do earn the legal minimum, but it has also employed hundreds more women in satellite workshops where wage slips reveal that they can receive just half the legal minimum — about 7 cents for each pair they make.

The situation is even more desperate for women who work from their own homes. Companies less reputable than Korindah pay these young women as little as 2 cents a pair to knit strands of hair into the basic lashes that will eventually end up on Western shelves.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance — which campaigns for workers’ rights in the region — calculates that a family of four in Indonesia needs $272 a month to cover their basic needs.

About 90 percent of the estimated 100,000 workers employed in the false eyelash business in Purbalingga are women.

In one house Friti, 20, a new mother nursing a baby, said she was making lashes for Royal Korindah’s partnership workshop in Arenan for just 3 cents a pair. She was previously employed in the workshop, but quit when she was seven months pregnant. Now she juggles caring for the baby with making eyelashes for the company on her own loom, sitting on the rough concrete floor of her dark and empty home, with its concrete-and-bamboo walls. The child lies on a blanket behind her.

“I finished school, but did not have the money to go on in higher education, though I would have liked to,” she said. “I wanted to be a teacher, but now I think I will always be doing this, because I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes I feel dizzy and I have problems with my eyes, but I can’t afford glasses. I’ve never worn false eyelashes, but I think I’d quite like to try a pair, just to know how it feels.”

In another house, 20-year-old Kuswati was bent over her loom, concentrating hard on threading hairs. She was born with no arms and uses her toes to make the lashes for a different factory — which does not supply Eylure — and is paid just 2 cents a pair.

“I have been making eyelashes since I was 15. I use my feet to thread them,” she said. “We often ask for more money because the price is too low and after working for a long time we do get tired.”

PT Royal Korindah was founded in 1976 and has established itself as the leading manufacturer, popular with international brands.

The hair has to be about 20 cm long. It is first boiled and dyed before being knitted into lashes, after which it is ironed, cut and rolled. The lashes are placed in an oven to fix the curl and cut again to give them a style before they are packaged.

“Labor is the expensive process,” said manager Anjarwinarto. “The material is not expensive, but it is all handmade. It is mostly [done by] women.”

Women start in the factory at 18 and work until they are about 40, “because after that their eyes go.” They can make a single strip in about 10 minutes, depending on the complexity. Anjarwinarto said they can average 30 to 40 pieces a day.

Last year, the Purbalingga Manpower Agency complained that thousands of workers — a third of those employed in the industry in the area — were being paid less than the minimum wage.

Eylure’s parent company, Original Editions, welcomed the investigation, but said it was unaware that Royal Korindah was subcontracting. There is no suggestion that any of the other Western fashion companies that source from factories in Purbalingga were aware of the arrangement. Royal Korindah did not respond to requests for comment on its subcontracting arrangements.

A spokesman stressed that the Katy Perry range of eyelashes was made in the main factory, where the minimum wage or higher is paid.

“We welcome reporters visiting the false lash facility and acknowledge that Eylure does work with Royal Korindah, which is understood to be one of the best and most respected facilities in Indonesia, used by a number of leading brands and which contributes enormously to the local community.

“Royal Korindah pays the minimum wage set by the Indonesian government or higher. We do not work with any sub-factories or partnerships factories in the production of our products.”