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Curling up and dyeing? The hairdressing and barbering sector during COVID-19

The hairdressing and barbering sector in the UK is an interesting reflection of the economy. Hairdressing was the fastest growing occupation in the 1990s – part of the wider growth of services and decline in manufacturing – and this rapid growth continues today. Evidence of this growth was encapsulated in a recent media report on the town of Ashford, Kent, which has 28 (registered) barbers and hair salons for its 75,000 population. This example, though somewhat extreme, is not an aberration. Most large UK cities and towns have an abundance of hairdressers, barbers, salons, as well as numerous mobile hairdressers in operation. Hair salons and barbershops have become a mainstay of UK high streets along with bars and cafes, bookmakers, nail salons and beauticians, and charity and pound shops. They are often held up as examples of small-scale entrepreneurialism and can be sites of secure, decent work. There is however evidence of low-pay and exploitative working practices. It is therefore important to understand why this sector has grown, what its work and employment conditions are like and what the impact of COVID-19 will be on the sector.

Pre-COVID-19, the UK hairdressing and barbering sector was buoyant. It was growing in part due to the expansion of men’s hairstylists offering a wider range of styles and services, and because of social media allowing hairdressers to easily advertise their styles and services. The sector was also undergoing processes of professionalisation through the introduction of new forms of training and qualifications, and changes to apprenticeships. Figures from the National Hairdressing and Beauty Federation (NHBF) show that just over 250,000 individuals were working in the hair and beauty sector in 2019. This was a decrease of 43,000 from 2015, although the number of hair and beauty businesses rose by over 1,000 between 2018 and 2019. The vast majority of those who work in the sector are female, and young; 83 percent of those working in hairdressing and barbering in 2019 were female, and nearly half were aged between 16 and 34. The hairdressing and beauty sector generated over £7.5 billion in turnover in 2017.

The hairdressing and barbering sector is particularly interesting because workers operate on a range of contractual bases alongside one another. Self-employment is an important feature of the sector; Fifty-four percent of those working in the hairdressing and barbering sector in 2019 were self-employed. These individuals may be self-employed salon owners, self-employed mobile hairdressers, or self-employed chair-renters (who pay a fee to operate within a salon).

Hairdressers undertake a wide range of activities in their work, for example cutting, colouring, mixing and applying treatments and styling hair. As well as these technical aspects of hairdressing, the role also involves a high level of emotional and aesthetic labour. Hairdressers rely on creating the ‘right’ impression with the salon’s aesthetics. Prolonged one-on-one or small group interactions mean hairdressers must be adept at conversing with clients and reading and responding to the ways different clients might feel whilst in the chair. Building a client base is pivotal to maintaining a stable income, particularly for self-employed hairdressers, thus developing positive relationships with clients is of paramount importance. Clients must be happy not only with the hairstyle, but also with their overall experience to become a source of repeat income. Despite the similarities in hairdressers’ activities, the differences in their employment relations mean that COVID-19 will likely affect some more severely than others.

In 2019 we began thinking about conducting a research project based at the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Decent Work to explore working conditions in the sector in more detail. Specifically, we sought to examine working conditions for young workers, especially for self-employed ‘chair-renters’. We were interested in how chair-renters (and other staff) worked, what training they had received, and the nature of their contractual relationship with business owners. Research from the early 2000s illustrated how hairdressers interact with their clients, the temporal organisation of work and the boundaries between home and work was deeply affected by employment relations. However, this research did not explicitly deal with the issue of age within the hairdressing and barbering sector, despite the continued popularity of apprenticeships leading to regular new, young entrants into the sector’s workforce. It is reasonable to assume that age might factor into hairdressers’ skills, how they relate with clients, as well as their knowledge of things such as employment rights given that they will likely be earlier in their career and have less experience. Age might also factor into their situations at home, such as living with parents or not having children, which impact their work.

We were in the early stages of designing our project when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the UK. Hairdressing and barbering was not the first sector to lock-down, despite the inherently intimate nature of the job. But the lockdown occurred relatively early for the sector, on 23rd March 2020. Since lockdown the entire sector has been prevented from working – with the exception of some hairdressers who continue to operate, in violation of Government guidelines on social distancing. The shutdown has major implications for salon owners, employees, and the self-employed, both now and after the COVID-19 crisis.

The immediate impacts of COVID-19

COVID-19 impacted hairdressers in several ways. Firstly, there were serious short-term financial challenges. Business owners had to continue paying full rent to landlords, leading some to call for ‘rent holidays’ or ‘deferrals’ (rather than a more politicised ‘rent strike’). The scope of this problem was evident in recent reportage stating less than 50% of renters were able to pay rent in full in March 2020. Business owners were protected from eviction by the government, although this was only until the end of June 2020. Further measures to support small businesses financially include Bounce Back Loans and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Scheme. Despite these interventions, a recent NHBF survey showed 77% of respondents were worried about their business surviving.

Hairdressing staff may have been furloughed, wherein the government will cover 80% of wages up to £2,500 per month from 1st March until August, and then 70% and 60% of wages for September and October respectively. In other cases, staff will face redundancy as small and micro-sized employers feel unable or unwilling to engage with or rely on government funding. For self-employed chair-renting hairdressers there may be further contractual issues. Where salons have utilised the NHBF’s chair-rental agreement, salon owners can claim breach of contract for lost earnings, while the self-employed can also claim breach due to loss of ability to earn. In this instance a contractual force majeure results, leading to suspension of the chair-renting contract for three months. However, during this period the contractual requirement to pay rent remains, and accrues, and after three months the salon owner could pursue the chair-renter for unpaid rent during the preceding period. This would presumably undermine future working relationships but may be an action undertaken by salon owners who are themselves struggling financially. An income support scheme for self-employed workers was announced by the UK Chancellor on 26th March 2020, although this was not accessible until May 2020.

Secondly, there are issues pertaining to the labour process of hairdressers due to COVID-19. Hairdressing requires near constant personal contact and interaction in enclosed spaces which are often busy, particularly if salon owners seek to maximise profit by renting out as many chairs as space allows. Hairdressers generally do not wear any special clothing or protective equipment for their work, unlike dentists or nail bar workers. This is a key issue which may change when salons gradually reopen.

Reopening after COVID-19

When salons reopen, there are various factors which will likely impact upon hairdressers and the sector. In Germany the federal government have issued new rules for recently reopened salons including maintenance of 1.5 metre distance between customers, conversations between customers and clients to be conducted only via the mirror rather than face to face, mandatory washing of hair before cutting, and the use of facemasks. In the UK it is foreseeable that HM Government may also adopt specific measures affecting hairdressers. Government may only allow businesses to reopen providing they limit the maximum number of staff or customers inside at any one time, or over a given day. Alternatively, the government may not set specific parameters, leaving salon owners and self-employed hairdressers to put measures in place themselves. Following the initial closure of business such as bars, clubs and gyms, there was a lack of clarity over whether salons were required to close or not, placing responsibility for these decisions in the hands of business owners. This could potentially expose business owners to legal action by staff or customers who became ill after being on the premises; this issue is already a mounting concern for businesses in the more litigious USA. The Hair Council and the NHBF have issued online training guides for hairdressers offering advice and support on reopening. The guidance details extensive cleaning procedures along with practical changes such as removing items that clients handle (for example magazines), operating an appointment-only (rather than ‘walk-in’) system and declining customers who exhibit signs of illness.

Government may also request hairdressers wear protective equipment, or this may be adopted voluntarily. The usage of personal protective equipment may impact upon the aesthetic labour involved in hairdressing – the associations of certain salons with certain styles or aesthetics could be negatively affected. Wearing personal protective equipment may also hinder communication, making it more difficult for hairdressers to build and maintain relationships with clients. It is unlikely hairdressers could install screens to reduce, limit or minimise close physical contact, as has occurred in other businesses, due to the nature of the labour process.   Hairdressing workers will likely have to undertake increased cleaning of surfaces and equipment, and wash their hands more regularly, all increasing workload. A survey conducted by the NHBF indicated that 74% of respondents were worried about what personal protective equipment would be needed, how much it would cost and how available it would be. Similarly, there will be additional emotional labour which hairdressers will perform as they undertake their work while potentially being concerned about threat of infection alongside potential loss of income and underemployment or unemployment.

Another serious issue affecting the sector post-COVID19 is uncertainty surrounding continued levels of supply and demand for hairdressers in the medium and potentially longer term. Even under normal circumstances unpredictability is a feature of hairstyling, as the work relies on the presence of clients who are themselves unpredictable – although how this is managed varies considerably between different types of salons. The fallout from COVID-19 may mean this becomes even less predictable, leading to difficulties for salon owners and managers in deciding how many staff they need. This situation could result in redundancies and increased chair-renting (albeit with altered contracts) as salon owners seek to reduce wage bills. The practical implications around hygiene and distancing mean that hairdressers may also want to manage demand in new ways, as outlined by the NHBF. This could include allowing for cleaning between clients, which could reduce the number of clients processed per day and arranging ‘vulnerable client’ hours. Of course, if this is not stipulated by the government, the onus will be on salons to implement any changes. This could potentially lead to disparities between salons who do implement robust policies and those who do not.

Upon reopening, it is likely that hairdressers and barbers with different contractual arrangements will be affected differently. Lower demand (or restrictions on number of clients allowed in salons) will likely have a larger effect on chair renters because they rely on a steady stream of customers for revenue, unlike employees who are paid a fixed rate. Moreover, if a salon makes some staff redundant or offers fewer hours then there could be intensification of work for remaining staff. Mobile hairdressers may be hindered by not being able to enter people’s homes to work; the NHBF is currently advising against home appointments. There may also be fewer opportunities for salons to take on apprentices, due to businesses closing, and reduced time to train staff or manage the apprentice programmes. This impacts upon the increasing professionalization of the sector over the last decade and has implications for skills providers as well.

A final issue is how consumers will respond. Many will be wary of returning to hairdressers quickly. Others may have gotten used to longer hair, or “DIY” haircuts from family and friends (which have increased in the UK). Consumers may not be willing to pay salon prices if the holistic experience of going to a salon is detrimentally affected or if their usual treatments cannot be offered. Reduced usage of hairdressers by consumers may be spurred by the imminent recession, which has already led to job losses in the UK. There may be an uptake in individuals making more use of mobile hairdressers, so long as they are entrusted not to have been in contact with anyone ill, something which presents its own set of challenges.

The aftermath of COVID-19 will be experienced differentially across the sector. It is more likely that larger, experienced salons with cash reserves will be better placed to weather the storm. Although even these could be impacted if consumers seek out cheaper services. Government loan schemes may prove insufficient to fully support many businesses, leading to salons altering prices or changing the services which they offer. The longer-term effects also relate to the severity of the recession, and how other sectors of the economy are impacted. It could be the case that other personal services are impacted in a similar way to hairdressing, or it may be the case that hairdressing (along with other close contact personal services such as nail salons and beauty salons) – with its inherently intimate labour process and tendency towards low-pay and self-employment, is hit especially hard. Whichever way the sector is affected, it is likely that the most vulnerable staff members will be most impacted. This category includes younger workers with the least job experience and therefore ability to easily acquire new jobs, those who are undergoing training, or those unable to work flexibly or adapt to change.

Conclusions

COVID-19 may curtail the growth of the hairdressing sector, which had been developing for so long. Or there could be an upswing in demand as consumers seek the familiarity of habit. Hairdressing – as a non-routine manual task – is unlikely to be automated in the near future, and the labour costs remain relatively low. As such, it will continue to exist as a site of the economy which employs workers to some extent. What will alter is the manner in which COVID-19 continues to affect the sector. These changes are not predetermined – if employers or the state seek to enforce overly rigorous changes or demands on hairdressers then there could be resistance. It is however unlikely this will come from trade union activity in the short-term. Trade union membership is low among hairdressers due to the sector being made mostly of micro- and small enterprises with high levels of managerial control. Coordination among hairdressers is often informal, and constructed through personal networks or online. Change may instead take the form of increased numbers of hairdressers entering the informal economy, something made easier by the cash-based nature of much hairdressing. This presents its own set of challenges for regulators and HMRC.

To conclude, the hairdressing sector faces various challenges, both immediate and in the longer term. There is uncertainty, but some fundamentals offer insight into some of the potential directions the sector could head, and these insights are also relevant to other parts of the service sector in general. Our research will explore the changing nature of working conditions in the sector. Understanding these conditions are crucial for all who seek improved working conditions in the sector, facilitating its development in a way which is beneficial for all, and which results in fewer bad hair days all round.

Stefanie Williamson is Research Associate at Sheffield University.

Edward Yates is Lecturer in Employment Relations at Sheffield University.

Image credit: Jason Leung on Unsplash