The Korea Herald


The beauty industry’s not-so-beautiful side

Entry-level employees at beauty salons say they’re in the minimum wage law’s blind spot

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Nov. 10, 2021 - 09:33

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From the standard cut and dry to celebrity treatments worth millions of won per session, you could say hairdressing is a profession that will never go out of style. But behind the glamour lies a long history of disputes between workers and shop owners.

The hairdressing industry in recent years has been hit with complaints from workers who say they are overworked and underpaid -- getting significantly less than the legal minimum wage of 8,720 won ($7.50) per hour.

“I started off with 1.2 million and am now being paid 1.3 million a month. It differs depending on the salon, but my shop gives me 100,000 won more every time I pass the level test,” said a 23-year-old hairdresser who asked to be identified only as Park. “I asked why it’s below the minimum wage and they told me that’s just how the hairdressing industry is.”

Park is currently sitting on three years of experience as an entry-level hairdresser, or intern, and has worked in the Seoul fashion capitals of Apgujeong, Hongdae and Gangnam. The customary work schedule in the industry is around 10 hours a day, six days a week, and it is rare for interns to get the mandated lunch hour.

‘Underpaid and overworked’

On a 52-hour-a-week schedule -- the maximum number of hours allowed under the Labor Standards Act -- the minimum monthly wage amounts to a little over 1.8 million won. But Park and other beauty salon interns say they work more and get paid less.

Employers who violate the Minimum Wage Act can face up to three years in prison or fines of up to 20 million won.

The Labor Standards Act stipulates that employees who work eight or more hours in a day are entitled to an hour of free time during work hours. But Park says whether or not interns get a lunch break depends on the supervising hairdresser.

“When we’re busy and nobody tell us to go have lunch, we may not get a chance. It all depends on the hair designers and the shop owner,” she said.

Park and other hairdressers must go through a mandatory internship. They are required to wash clients’ hair, clean up and do the other grunt work needed to run the shop while learning the ropes.

They are also required to pay tuition to gain the necessary hairdressing skills, which puts their paychecks in the lower 1 million won range.

Being an intern is par for the course in most work environments, but beauty salon workers are often required to intern for at least two years or more. Then they take a test administered by the employers, who decide if they can be promoted to hair designers.

While there is an official hairdressing license that can be acquired, most salons follow an apprenticeship system where the shop owners decide whether to promote their interns. Work experience as a hair designer can be gained only after that promotion.

“If we refuse the conditions, they may not promote us. It’s entirely up to the shop. They may hold the test and not pass us,” said another hairdresser, surnamed Kim. “It’s hard to say anything when you’re just a step away from becoming a designer, so we just suck it up.”

Shop owners point to cost of keeping unskilled employees

While The Korea Herald contacted several hairdressers who voiced similar complaints, it is unclear how many of the country’s hairdressers spend years on salaries below minimum wage.

In 2013, a group called the Youth Community Union carried out a study on 198 beauty salons across the country and found that the workers were paid an average hourly wage of 2,971 won -- well below the legal minimum of 4,860 won per hour at the time. The group has not released a subsequent report on the issue, nor has any other organization.

The Korean Beauticians’ Association, an umbrella organization with 74,000 members across the country, says the problem is confined to a very small number of large beauty salon franchises. “To our knowledge, these franchises charge for education and lunch because the starting-level staff members have low production,” said Seo Yeong-min, the association’s public relations director.

Seo said most of its member salons do not bring in enough even to pay the minimum wage, and that it usually takes unskilled beginners two to four years in the field to become hair designers.

“From the shop owners’ point of view, they take a few years to train an unskilled worker, only to see their employees get a better-paying job as soon as they’re qualified as designers,” Seo said. “Shop owners are definitely not the ones with all the power in this industry.”

Song Yeong-woo, the chief researcher for the Korean Beauticians’ Association, said the apprenticeship system in the beauty industry creates a unique situation.

“There is a point where your position (in the shop) drastically changes when you become a designer. That’s why most workers put up with it (hard work), because they know they just have to put up with it for a few years to be in that position,” Song said, adding that a prominent designer can even influence how a shop is run.

She said it is hard to compile figures on the average work environment for hairdressers because each shop is run differently, and it is nearly impossible to even define what an “average” environment is.

While there is not enough data to determine typical working conditions in the beauty industry, interning for years on end is definitely not the norm in other fields. The law states that when workers sign contracts for a year or more of employment, they can be paid less than minimum wage while they are “trainees” -- but this can continue for no more than three months.

What is less clear is why such customs exist, since shop owners and young interns sing different tunes on the matter of yearslong apprenticeships at low wages. Owners say it is based on a mutual understanding that employees have to pay their dues until they can pull their own weight, but workers say they are afraid to speak out in an industry where poor treatment is all too common.

Park, the hairdresser, said she and other interns refrain from complaining even when their pay is docked unfairly, out of fear of getting a bad reputation. “It’s a small industry and if you are working at a large shop, the word is bound to get out (that you complained). That’s what scares us,” she said.