Many apprentices in the Hair and Beauty industry come straight from high school onto the salon floor – or even leave before they finish Year 12. These young men and women without experience in the workforce, or in adult situations, need an extra duty of care that often just isn’t given to them. One of our ambassadors, Joel, ended up in this situation and struggled to find somebody to turn to.

Joel was 15 and studying towards his certificate 2 in high school when he was told about an open apprenticeship at a high-profile salon in NSW. He went for a trial and was offered the role on the spot. “I only had one day between school and my full-time job,” he says. “I had no time at all to process it and reflect on it.”

Coming from a rural school to a bustling salon was a shock. Joel bonded instantly with Jarred, a senior stylist. “We just formed a really good friendship,” he says. “Jarred was like my gay godmother. He guided me, and let me open up into the beautiful gay fairy that I am today.”

Their connection caught the salon owner’s attention. “I remember he was pulling me out the back every so often and asking me a lot of personal questions about what I’d been doing, if I’d been seeing anyone – basically if I’d been sexually active. All I remember is how scared I felt – my boss, my employer, asking me if I was sexually active.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” Joel goes on. “I literally came out in school that year, when I was about 14 or 15.” Joel was vulnerable, discovering his sexuality, and says his boss knew that – and exploited it.

The owner also questioned his abilities. “He said, ‘You’ll never make it as a hairdresser. You’ll be on Centrelink for the rest of your life. You’ll be on the dole.”

As well as the harassment, Joel felt his apprenticeship never got out the gates. “In that whole year of apprenticeship, I did not – I kid you not – pick up one tint brush. I did not apply one colour. My whole first year consisted of me being at the basin non-stop.” As the youngest of three apprentices by several years, he felt that he wasn’t taken seriously. “I was fresh there. It was very intimidating.”

“At that time, there wasn’t really much to go to when you had those feelings. It wasn’t spoken about.”

He knew something was wrong, but given the inappropriate behaviour of his employer, Joel had nobody to turn to and couldn’t raise his concerns. He knows now to trust his gut instinct. “If you’re not feeling comfortable and safe, you know something is causing this, and you know how you feel.”

After a year, the owner suggested Joel find a salon where he could get more one-on-one training. He found another apprenticeship quickly, but before he could formally resign, the owner found out through Facebook.

When Joel came into work, it exploded. “He told me how unhappy he was with how I was acting, and that I was full of bullshit. I couldn’t figure out why. He said, ‘you know what, Joel, just make this your last day.’ I said, ‘OK, no worries’, and left it at that.”

“I was washing bowls up in the sink, the owner comes up to me, leans on the desk, and said, ‘You’re an asshole. You’re nothing but a shit-talking faggot, and I’m glad this is your last day.”

“I remember standing there, and I think I just went into a little bit of shock. I went straight upstairs, grabbed my bag, grabbed my phone, and walked out. That was it. I was 15.”  

As well as the harassment, Joel was dramatically underpaid and didn’t receive his six-month pay rise. With the assistance of Melanie, our HSA organiser, he reclaimed his wages. But Joel also received no super for the time he worked there, and never received payslips.

The entire experience made him question his career path. “I remember thinking, if this is what hairdressing is, I don’t want to be a part of it. I took six months off because I thought it wasn’t worth it, and I can do other things.”

“But other people were getting in my ear and telling me, ‘Joel, please don’t let this go. You’re so good at what you’re doing, and I can see something in you. You need to rise above this.’ I did do it, and all the people working at that salon aren’t there anymore.”

It is often difficult for any employee to raise concerns about a workplace dispute, but when you are a young apprentice and have no experience or other support, where can you turn? Apprentices need a certain amount of guidance, and not just on how to wash and tint and cut hair.

For many, this is the first job of their career, and they need support on how to navigate working life, how to interact in a customer-facing, professional environment. And when you lack that, it can make working and learning a serious struggle.

This is why, Joel became an ambassador with HSA – to prevent other young apprentices from having the same experiences as him, and to help others rise above the bullying and exploitation. “I’m not going to have some old man tell me I’m not going to make it. He doesn’t decide my fate. I decide it. That’s the message I want to spread to everyone else – no one decides your destiny, only you,” he says. “You need to have the confidence and bravery, but it can come through if you have the right people to support you.”

For Joel, he knows how much that support can mean, especially for young people at a vulnerable time in their lives. “I thought to myself if I can just save one more boy or one more girl from going through what I went through, it would all be worth it,” he says. “It’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”