My story as a hairdresser is pretty typical, I think, but it’s not a well-known one.
The basic fact is behind all the glitz and glamour of the hair industry, working conditions are generally terrible.
It’s standard for hairdressers to get exploited and bullied and ripped off. I believe because our industry is primarily dominated by females this goes on in silence.
Things should change. If construction workers, or train drivers, or anyone else was getting treated like this at work you’d definitely hear about it.
I hope that by sharing my experience I encourage other hairdressers to stick up for themselves, and start fighting for a better work culture in salons. It really doesn’t have to be this way.
"It’s standard for hairdressers to get exploited and bullied and ripped off." Image Source: Supplied.
Like heaps of other stylists I’ve met, I always knew I was going to be a hairdresser.
I learned to braid when I was six-years-old, and before school I used to do other kids’ hair for a gold coin. I used to make babysitters sit down while I did their hair and make up (poor babysitters!).
I would check kids hair for nits in primary school, let their parents know if they had lice and help eradicate them too.
I made sure I knew the salon owner who lived down the street and when I was 11 I begged to work for her... I said, ‘Please, can I work for you? I’ll even work for free.’ She said, ’OK.’
My jobs were filling up shampoo bottles, cleaning and sterilising equipment with the old blue disinfectant. I’d clean the mirrors. Eventually I was allowed to shampoo some of the regulars. I went there most days after school and worked every Saturday, all for free. And I loved it.
By the time I was 17 I had done hair for a wedding – a bride and three bridesmaids — and I was getting paid casual rates at the salon I worked in.
But in Year 12 they asked me to take on more hours and I said I couldn’t while I had exams. I wanted to do my apprenticeship with them but they told me not to bother coming in anymore. I was shattered.
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I decided to finish my HSC and then do a hair apprenticeship. I figured I had a good head start in my skills, and could do lots of things an apprentice should be able to do.
So I started working in a new salon and signed up for an apprenticeship. And I hated it.
The owner was a beautician by trade and was never in to see what was going on. There was just three of us (manager senior and myself), and the bullying was brutal.
I had moved out of home at 17 before my apprenticeship and had always been quite confident and independent. But now, I found myself gong home to mum and crying nearly every day.
It wasn’t a busy salon so to try and make sure I wasn’t being harassed I would keep my head down and clean everything three times over.
But the other girls would give me the silent treatment except occasionally to throw towels at my feet and say, “pick it up" like I was Cinderella.*
So I got another job at a shopping centre.
"I found myself gong home to mum and crying nearly every day." Image source: Supplied.
But the bullying was actually worse this time. The manager would make a show out of picking up minor things and criticising me loudly in front of the other staff and customers.
Often it wasn’t even work related.
One time she said in front of all 15 staff ‘Adrienne has a big forehead.’ They all giggled. Then she said, ‘Do you know what that means? It means you have a big vagina.’ More laughter.
She would write our rosters in pencil.
On one of my days off she called me and said, ‘Why aren’t you in the salon? I have you rostered on.’
I rushed into work to see she had rubbed out ‘off’ and written ‘on’ over the top of it.
It was only because I had taken a photo of the original roster on my phone that I could prove it had been changed — not that I felt I had anyone to tell.
Not long after that I was diagnosed with depression. I was on medication and I would go home after every shift and eat to deal with the stress. I put on 30 kilos.
Looking back, I think it wasn’t just the bullying itself that pushed me, but how hard I found it to accept I was getting treated this way.
"Not long after that I was diagnosed with depression." Image via iStock.
After all, I was doing my best and trying my best every day. I was good at my job. And I had always been known as a bright, bubbly person with a great work ethic. I had the best intentions to make a good start to my career, but I just kept getting crushed.
Having said that I don’t even think I got the worst of it. One salon I worked in had a lot of Korean girls and they were treated far worse than I was. I think the manager figured they wouldn’t complain due to visa issues?
I decided I couldn’t stay.
So I told my manager I was giving my two weeks’ notice. She told me not to bother ever coming back in. They never paid out any of my entitlements, like my annual leave.
I got luckier with the third salon I tired. There was a better training system and I learned a lot more.
Over my apprenticeship I had developed RSI in my wrists — not an uncommon problem in the industry — and had to wear wrist braces and spend a lot of money on physio.
After I finished my apprenticeship I had a bad taste in my mouth about the whole industry.
So when a job came up within a global company in a reception role I took that.
Eventually I went back to hairdressing because there was an opportunity to take a manager role. I wanted to make a positive difference and be the manager I never had.
But the little salon that had employed me was going through financial trouble and went through liquidation. Again, not an uncommon problem in the industry.
I think my story is a common one. Hairdressers are often on the move because of bullying, injury, or bosses who rip them off.
I think part of what keeps this quiet is the passion of hairdressers. Most are like me and have always wanted to do this job since they were little. They genuinely love the good side, and don’t want to be seen as complainers.
But, I think there is a real gender element to this.
Women in general don’t want to be seen to whinge. We tend to think there is honour in suffering silently.
So if we are getting repetitive strain injuries, or back problems from being bent over and on our feet all day, or light-headed due to chemical treatments and a lack of ventilation — we don’t speak up.
If we are not getting paid penalty rates, or overtime, or annual leave — we don’t speak up.
Even if we can’t get a stool and glass water for a ten-minute break every few hours — we tend to battle on silently.
But I don’t think it has to be this way in 2016.
You have to study for four years to be a hairdresser. I think we provide a valuable service to people.
And I think we should at least be treated with the same respect in our workplace as everyone else.
Adrienne is a spokesperson for Hair Stylists Australia, a new employee group for Australian hairdressers.