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Human rights advocates are calling for New Zealand's million dollar hair industry to be regulated in light of a Weekend Herald investigation into the secret behind hair extensions.

Every year New Zealand imports more than $2 million worth of human hair - the equivalent of about 62,500 ponytails - to meet growing demand for hair extensions, which can cost thousands of dollars per head.

The majority of the hair is coming in from China, according to Customs Services data obtained under the Official Information Act.

In October, the Herald travelled to Taihe County, in China's Anhui Province, to investigate this industry and shine a light on the women behind the hair.

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Read the full Black Gold investigation.

We found workers in hair factories being paid as little as $2 an hour and exposed to dense amounts of volatile peroxide and young girls in the countryside left in tears after being forced to cut off their ponytails by their desperate families.

Because the hair is being imported into New Zealand as a beauty accessory and not as a body part it moves freely into the country without any restrictions, regulations or prohibitions.

This means there is no way of knowing who grew the hair or whether it was ethically donated.

The Weekend Herald investigation has prompted the Human Rights Commission (HRC), Trade Aid and Fairtrade Australia New Zealand to call for change.

Dr Jackie Blue, of the HRC, said the hair trade was exploiting young girls "in a very brutal way."

"For many cultures long hair is part of femininity and their hair is being hacked off in a violent way in the middle of the street.

"It's appalling: They are human beings and they have human rights," said Blue, the equal employment opportunities commissioner at HRC.

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Hair agent Jianjun Wang, left, inspects the pony tail of girl in a rural village while her mother looks on.
Hair agent Jianjun Wang, left, inspects the pony tail of girl in a rural village while her mother looks on.

Fairtrade Australia New Zealand chief executive Molly Harriss Olson also weighed in on the debate over the phone from Melbourne.

"I think [this] is symbolic of the problems of a world where we don't really understand the impact of our own consumption," Olson said.

It's "extremely important" for consumers of hair extensions to know where the product has come from and how it was obtained, she said.

"It's up to consumers to be aware and for the authorities to ensure this kind of information is made available."

Customs New Zealand told the Herald there were no import restrictions in place for human hair because it was specifically excluded under the Human Tissue Act.

The act enforces a one year prison sentence or a $50,000 fine for those caught trading in human tissue, but section 56 states that the law does not apply to "human hair collected from living people."

A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment spokeswoman said the hair trade was "not currently on our policy programme," but added the Herald investigation would help increase awareness of potential issues regarding hair extensions.

Factory workers process hair into extensions in a factory in Taihe, China.
Factory workers process hair into extensions in a factory in Taihe, China.

Trade Aid buyer Justin Purser, who has worked for the organisation for 20 years, said the concept of regulating a product such as human hair may be frowned upon but "working within a set of rules provides safeguards for exploitation."

"Without any kind of ethical guidelines people in trading systems tend to seek to optimise their product and we see all sorts of problems arise such as slavery, exploitation and aggravated inequality," he said.

For the human rights advocates, the big question now is "who should take responsibility?"

The small businesses and salons that use these products in New Zealand "don't have the resources to audit the supply chain,", Blue said.

"In order to find a solution this conversation needs to include suppliers, businesses, consumers and the Government," she said.

"We can't let the status quo carry on."