Hairdressers find themselves among the many service providers losing their income during the coronavirus lockdown that has been in place since 26 March.
To add insult to injury, many of them are small business owners or self-employed, which means they do not qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.
Despite the easing of lockdown regulations since 1 May, which allows for the sale of beauty and hair-related products – even from salons – this is often allegedly disregarded by law enforcement officials.
The Employers Organisation for Hairdressing Cosmetology and Beauty (EOHCB) put together a petition and got overwhelming support from the industry and clients to reopen salons, but this has not made an impression on government.
The EOHCB will now head to court on 19 May to make its case for the industry to reopen, arguing not only that its financial strain is becoming too hard to bear, but also that it can and will adhere to safety and health protocols.
Spearheading the initiative is Jade Delphine Tomé, a South African hair industry entrepreneur living in Portugal. She is involved with Tomé Distribution, a supplier of products to many local salons for the past 15 years.
“About two-and-a-half weeks ago we started getting messages from many of our clients – who over the years have become our friends – who have reached a point of real desperation. People were getting fired, many were getting retrenched it was becoming a really tough time for everybody.
“We decided we had to try to do something to get some form of reprieve. When government rejected the EOHCB’s plea, it immediately spiked a nerve in me to post a video on Facebook, which was a call on stylists and beauticians to say, we need to stand together, we need to fight back, we can’t take no for an answer…”
Tomé’s video quickly went viral and garnered thousands of shares and views.
“I’ve only received positive feedback from people willing to stand together and try all avenues – that’s where it all began.”
According to Tomé, government’s biggest concern is social distancing and human contact.
“But there are retail stores that are open where products are handled by people, and we as an industry are willing to settle to only sell retail products.”
According to government regulations gazetted on 29 April, beauty, nail and hair salons are allowed to retail specified categories of products, with all treatment services still strictly prohibited.
Salons that wish to retail during Level 4 of the national Covid-19 lockdown must obtain a CIPC permit. Sole proprietors cannot register with CIPC, but are able to get a letter and copy of the CIPC permit of the company that supplies their products, should they have one.
But according to Tomé, there have been some setbacks, such as alleged harassment by law enforcement and confiscation of stock, despite paperwork being in order. For fear of victimisation, the details of the incidents are being withheld.
“As a result, may salons fear the same thing happening to them, so it is a very precarious situation.”
Tomé says she is pushing for the reopening of salons because the industry has always been strict with hygiene and sanitisation and are adhering to Covid-19 regulations purely as a result of its training.
“We need some sort of reprieve, and I’ll take anything we can get as an industry to help us to start earning and income again safely and legally. Right now, a lot of salon workers are destitute – they don’t have any income whatsoever.”
As a consequence, the EOHCB will take its case to the High Court on 19 May, represented by advocate Carlo Viljoen.
“We are going to fight this case on a fact-by-fact basis, using expert witnesses, proving that we can adhere to all the lockdown regulations – more so than other industries.”
On ground level, life has been dire and unpredictable for those in the industry left in limbo by the current lockdown regulations, which has led to many workers plying their trade illegally.
Savannah* is a hairstylist who, out of desperation, has started to visit clients at their homes to make ends meet.
“Since the beginning of the lockdown we haven’t been able to work at all,” she told News24. “I didn’t make a cent for the first three weeks. My boss couldn’t pay any expenses or salaries.
“So for the past few weeks, I’ve been doing people’s hair privately. Obviously, it’s been really stressful… the fear of getting caught and compromising one’s professionalism, and looking over your shoulder all the time. But I had no choice, I have to do it – I have to pay my bills and put food on the table, there is no other way out.”
According to Savannah, she is a law-abiding citizen who has been “forced” to break the law to make a living. And she’s not the only one.
“Many people are doing this. My boss encouraged me to do it because she can’t pay me, and she is doing it too. I know people who are doing waxing from their homes, doing nails, and pedicures and so on. We’ve had to resort to being creative with certain tools, such a cutting up a file to use as a foil board, and sourcing our own products.”
But, in an ironic twist, Savannah is better off financially than ever before.
“There is a massive demand and I have loads of new clients.”
Savannah does not believe that working illegally poses any real risks.
“All our equipment is sterilised and cleaned, as always. We use hand sanitiser, all our appointments are one-on-one, we wear masks – as long as everything is hygienic, the regulations don’t need to be so extreme. I know so many people in the industry who don’t know how they’re going to put food on the table. There are ways to make this work, it would be possible if there were just some flexibility.
“I’m just trying to pay my bills, I’m not doing some shady sh**.”
Savannah says that, financially, she is doing even better than before the lockdown.
“There is a much bigger demand and I’m getting many referrals. Also, all the money goes straight into my pocket – it’s been live-saving. I would be totally screwed if I weren’t doing this.”
A client of Savannah’s, Nadine*, says the regulations are making criminals out of ordinary people. “These are people who just want to go about their lives and who don’t pose a significant risk to anybody in particular. I’ve never broken a law in my life; in fact, I have a law degree. I feel like driving something like this underground is really undemocratic and nonsensical.
“I’m having my hair done on Tuesday and I don’t feel guilty about that at all.”
Tomé acknowledges that there are many home-based salons and informal hairdressers that will be difficult to regulate, should concessions be made for the industry to operate.
“We would have to ensure that those who do open for business adhere to industry protocols. So those who work from home would at least be able to rent a chair at an approved salon and in that way still earn an income.
“At least we’ll know that those environments will be 100% controlled, sterilised and hygienic. That is not to say home salons aren’t – many home salons are pristine. We as an industry are willing to adhere to any guidelines – as long as there is some leniency.”
According to Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs spokesperson Lungi Mtshali, salons should be permitted to sell hair care products under Level 4 lockdown provisions, and that a CIPC permit is not required to do so.
“However, Cogta is bound by the regulations in terms of which industries are allowed to operate during the lockdown. We don’t have the authority to arbitrarily change regulations.
“But we have put in place an arbitration process for people who feel aggrieved by any part of the regulations. We encourage people to take that route should they feel they’re being marginalised in any way.”
While Mtshali was not aware of EOHCB’s court application, he said he had seen other representations from the hair industry.
“We emphasise with people affected by this. Everybody wants their industries to open, but we have to be as responsible as possible.”
But, said Mtshali, the industry is difficult to regulate because there are many workers who work from their homes or informal locations.
“In one of the representations, somebody sent me a picture motivating why they should be open for business, but from the picture it is apparent that there is no social distancing. Pictures like these prove that they shouldn’t be open at the height of the pandemic.
“We are always willing to engage with them to see if there are any guidelines that can be applied – but so far, there hasn’t been common ground.”
*Not their real names.