The never-ending saga of the framework agreement of the European social partners on health and safety in the hairdressing sector well illustrates the influence of gender stereotypes on policymakers. The virulent attacks of those opposed to transposing this agreement into a directive are partly explained by the fact that 80% of employees in the sector are women.

More than one million people work in the hairdressing sector in Europe, 80% of them women. Many of them are quite young, wit56% of those recruited being younger than 19. The bad working conditions and their impact on employee health are important factors explaining the sectors high turnover rate. As a rule, you start work in the trade at a young age, but dont stay very long. Forms of employmentare very variable and often precarious. A lot of hairdressers are self-employed, in one of the three categories: those with their own salons; those working in salons belonging to someone else (a situation often exploited by owners to avoid employing someone); and those offering mobilservices at customershomes, in nursing homes, before weddings, etc.

Over the last few years, we have been seeing a polarisation of work between very small salons (the majority of which employ less than threpeople) and chains of salons (often quite large and sometimes even multinational companies). In certain cases, staff are directly employed bthese companies, while in others labour relationships are more complex, featuring various forms of franchising. Cosmetics firms exercise a certaicontrol over part of the sector, sometimeby way of a franchise system, sometimepartially financing certain salons, etc. – and thereby influencing which products are purchased. The downside of this dependence of variousalons on multinational cosmetics companies is that they are not free to choose less toxic products.

The negative health impact of thbad working conditions has been ampldocumented over the past few years. The work involves major ergonomic constraints: having to work in an upright position leaning over a customers head, holding the tools of the trade for prolonged periods with ones arms above the shoulders. This is the cause of manmusculoskeletal disorders, whether in the back or in the shoulders. The repetitive movements of the hands and wrists are made worse by thfact that in many cases the scissors, brushes and hair-driers do not ergonomically match hairdressershands and the work they do.

The design of hairdressing salons can also pose problems. While they are often quite spacious and attractive for customers, they are rareladapted to the characteristics of the work, meaning that the hairdressers often have to move around a lot in limited space. Falling, slippingbumping into each other, having to lean over or to reach up for things placed well above the shoulders are all part and parcel of the daily workFalls and slips are the main cause of accidents in the sector.

There are also massive chemical risks associated with hairdressing work. Part of the work involves working with water another liquids. This causes skin problemsmaking the hands more vulnerable to harmful chemical products. On the other hand, working with a clientele for whom having their hair done is synonymous with pleasure and relaxatiomakes it more difficult to effectively avoid chemical risks: it is difficult to work with gloves and a mask, as this would permanently highlight thtoxic nature of thsubstances used. Ventilation in many salons is insufficient and it is rare to find high-exposure zones (in particular for permanent dyeing) completely separated from the other workplaces. A hairdressing salon can easily become a multi-exposure hotspot. Problems with allergies are commonplace. Asthma and skin disorders are someof the main reasons why people leave the trade. When a person – in this case a hairdresser – is allergic to a certain allergen, she becomes vervulnerable, even if exposure is at a very low level. This will not only stop her from working as a hairdresser, but will also mean her having tlive with a serious handicap for the rest of her life.

Other risks concern the physical environment. Noise levels from certain appliances are often quite high, lighting inadequate and temperatures high. Electrical installations are rarely up to industrial standards. The psychosocial dimension also has to btaken into account: relations with customers may be strained.

The most invisible risks are often the most insidious ones. We are seeing a major link between occupational exposure and several forms ocancer (in particular, bladder cancer associated with the use of hair dyes). In a monograph published in 20101, the International Agency foResearch on Cancer (IARC) confirmed that the occupational exposure of hairdressers should be considered as probably carcinogenic (IARgroup 2A). Exposure to endocrine disruptors is frequent, contributing to reproductive health problems (miscarriages, congenital deformities). One recent study published in the United States showed that the risk of developing breast cancer was higher for hairdressers and beauticiansAccording to certain studies, theare five times higher than for the populatioin general.

A never-ending saga

Contrary to what people often think, the sector does have a trade union tradition, though it varies greatly from one country to the next. The UNI Europa "hair and beauty" sector has affiliated members in 17 of the 28 EU Member States, while the corresponding European-level employer organisation, Coiffure EU, is present in 19 Member States (Switzerland). Note the dissymmetry. On the union side, the sector includes the beauty business (i.e. mainly staff working in beauty salons, nail studios, etc.), while on the employer side, the beauty sector is represented by an organisation with a much more blurred profile. CEPEC, the European Confederation of Professional Beauticians and Cosmeticians, has member organisations in nine EU countries, though with a variety of profiles: not only beauty salons but also producers of the equipment and/or products used in beauty treatments.

Trade union density and collective agreement coverage vary a lot from one country to the next, though at European level there is now a system of collective relations which has become consolidated over time. Following the European rules, the hairdressing sector is responsible fora range of activities defined in sectoral social dialogue. And it is far from being an inactive sector: it is the only one to have negotiated two framework agreements between 2009 and 2013. As occupational health problems are behind the sectors high turnover rate, it is only logical that this aspect plays a key role. Beginning in 2000, the two sides have negotiated a range of instruments. Debates initially ranged around the issue of qualifications, leading to the introduction of certification systems for various qualification levels. In 2005, a covenant on the use of cosmetic products was adopted. A generaframework agreement was signed in 2009 to improve working conditions in the sector, relating mainly to training and the certification thereof.Various activities conducted within the context of the European social dialogue helped to identify the health and safety problems in the sectoand to look into the positive experiences with prevention in a number of countries, leading to a specific framework agreement on health and safety being adopted in 2012.

In accordance with the EU Treaty, the signatory organisations requested that the agreement be enforced via a directive, as haalready been the case in a different sector i2010. A social dialogue agreement in the hospital sector related to injuries caused by sharp instruments. Concluded on 17 July 2009, the agreement was transposed into a directive adopted on 10 May 20103. For an agreement negotiated independently by the employers and unions tbecome a directive, all the Commission has to do is to check the representativeness of the signatories and whether the agreement contains anprovisions going against EU law. Once this has been done, it is up to the Council of Ministers to adopt the draft directive without being able toamend the agreements text. In other words, it can either accept or reject the text in its entirety. The European Parliament has no say in the matter, being solely informed of the process.

There is nothing in the Treaty allowing the Commission to give any opinion on the opportuneness or content of the frameworagreement over and above checking its compliance with EU law. This explained the signatoriesoptimism – they were convinced that a draftdirective would be adopted by the Commission within just a few months. The only question-mark was over whether the Council would wave ithrough. But things were to turn out differently

It all started with a fake news” item

The request to adopt a directive came up against an unprecedented and aggressive campaign. Two weeks before the agreement was formallconcluded, the attack got underway, initiated by two UK tabloids. The headline in the Sun on 9 April 2012 did not mince words: Nazism warearing its uglhead again: "Hair Hitlers. EU rules to bahairdressers from wearing rings and heels". The Daily Mail was quick to follow: "High heels to be cut down to size under new EU proposals forcing hairdressers to wear non-slip flat shoes". The agreement in fact said nothing about high heels, solely stipulating two fundamental prevention principles: that salons be equipped with non-slip flooring and that employees wear non-slip shoes. The information wathus inaccurate. But this press campaign had all the workings of being orchestrated, with the two tabloids quoting UK Employment Minister Chris Grayling: "We should be creating jobs, not killing them. This kind of stupidity has to stop. It makes no sense and I will do everything I canto stop it." At this point in time, it seemed that we were witnessing the umpteenth demagogic invention of the London gutter press, kick-started by a minister in need of publicity. The European Commission website issued a disclaimer on 12 April 2012. But we were in for more surprises. In November 2012, the next attack by the UK tabloids began, and this time the Commissions disclaimer of 2 November was somewhat less firm, containing two noteof caution: that the Commission had not yet decided what it would be doing with the agreement and would drop the proposal if an impacassessment showed that the costs outweighed the benefits, and that the transposition of the agreement into European legislation must not gagainst the interests of small businesses. This had nothing to do with simply checking representativeness or legality.

These reservations were proof that the agreement – and with it the whole principle of social partner autonomy guaranteed by the Treaty – had been taken hostage by the "Better Regulation" campaign. From a practicapoint of view, it was clear that the cost of thplanned measures was largely offset by the life-saving and health-promoting effects for hairdressers. Moreover, the employer organisationhad been convinced – otherwise they would never have signed the agreement. They wanted the agreement to be transposed into a directive forthe very reason of preventing a savage price war which would have made working conditions even worse. But backstage, it was obvious that others were at work: the cosmetics companies. These had managed to get a tailor-made regulation allowing them to market harmful productwhen used professionally. They wanted absolutely nothing to do with the substitution principle being applied in the haircare sector (see articlon page 24).

It quickly became clear that the impact assessment was nothing more than a smokescreen masking a Commission policy decision.Even before knowing the results, Commission President Barroso announced that he would never accept a directive in this field, declarinon the German TV channel ARD on 2 October 2013 that he saw no reason for adopting European rules on "hairdressersheels". Betrayinghis disdain, he stated: "You don’t want Europe to meddle where it should not. We have not interfered with the height of hairdressersheels".The arrival of Mr Juncker as head of the European Commission didn’t change much. Though the tone was perhaps more subdued, the Commissions attitude towards the agreement remained unchanged. In Novembe2015, a Commission publication promoting "Better Regulation" and targeting the public at large featured a picture making fun of thagreement: a hairdresser cutting a customers hair, with a high-heeled shoe in the foreground, accompanied by the words: "The EU musnot be big on small things". Was the fact that thousands of avoidable cancers occurred a small thing? Was the fact that tens of thousands of people quit their work each year due to serious health problems a small thing?

A version 2.0 of the agreement

At the request of the Commission, the signatory organisations drafted a new version of the agreement, with each sentence taking account of thermarks made by the Commissions legal department. Adopted in September 2016, this agreement contained basically the same elements athe initial agreement, though without any wording likely to provoke hostile reactions from the Commission.

Eighteen months later, the situation remains stalemated. A directive to protect the lives and health of a million hairdressers is still not ready to see the light of daynine years after the first agreement was signed. Unions and employer organisations are launching new initiatives inthe health and safety field. They will be assessing the results and, dependent on these, are planning to again request that a directive be adoptedUNI Europa negotiator Dimitris Theodorakis had this to say: "We were not expecting so much obstinacy and hostility towards an agreement baseon a simple principle: that of being able to work in the sector without having to sacrifice your health. We will be continuing our efforts to improve working conditions via European initiatives, but, to put it frankly, this last experience has turned out to be a cold shower for many unions."

Seeking to understand why the European Commission is so much against transposing the agreement into a directive, we can see thcombined effect of four factors. First of all, there is the typical stereotype of female occupations being less exposed to occupational risksespecially when they are merely seen as an extension of unpaid domestic work. Working as a hairdresser is often seen as a simple and pleasant way for a housewife to make a few euros on the side. But you dont have to be a psychoanalyst to suspect that this absurd fixation with higheels clearly shows to what extent hairdressing is associated with a gender-based division of labour. The high heels have a symbolic function, with hairdressers having to put across to their clientela stereotype image of beauty, negating the real-life needs of their bodies. The men so much opposed to the agreement have never knownwhat it is like to spend eight hours a day standing on high heels and moving around customers on an often-slippery floor.

On top of this, there is the reticence of certain Member States with regard to the Treaty clause stipulating that a sectoral collectivagreement negotiated between the European social partners can be transposed into a directive. They view this as a loss ocontrol over the European legislative process. The Commission also seems intent on promoting its "Better Regulation" campaign, with theclear aim of reducing the "burden" put on businesses by occupational health legislation.

The political message directed towards the social partners is that they can negotiate – as foreseen by the Treaty – but that this may onlbe done under the thumb of the Commission which intends to keep tight control over the outcome of any such negotiations, using itlegislative monopoly to dissuade potential "heretics". And then, of course, there is the permanent pressure applied by a cosmetics industrwhich refuses to allow any major control over its production. Since 2007, the sectors employer organisations and trade unions havdisplayed their willingness to take true account of the health of professional users before authorising substances used in cosmetics. Unfortunately, this requirement has never been effectively integrated into European legislation. Whatever the cause, the arbitrary refusal of theCommission to transpose the agreement into a directive and the total lack of transparency on the part of the Commission have left their mark.

More information

Broughton A. et al. (2014) Improving quality of work and employment in the hairdressing sector: scenarios for social partner cooperation, Dublin, Eurofound.

Degryse C. (2015) European Sectoral Social Dialogue: an uneven record of achievement?, WorkinPaper 2015.2, Brussels, ETUI.

Maraschin J. (2009) Hairdressing and beauty care: European action for safer workplaces, HesaMag, 142-45.

EU-OSHA (2014) Occupational health and safety in the hairdressing sector, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union.

Special report - All that glitters is not gold: the dark side of the beauty industry ETUI

Table of contents

The fight to protect hairdressers’ health: the inside story