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CAMBODIA: ‘Beer Brands Ignoring Risks to Women Promoters’

Chheang Bopha

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 22 2005 (IPS) - The panel discussions and debates at a regional conference here on sexual health, on the weekend, were a world away from Channa and Sophea’s daily environment-the din of music, clients’ chatter and unwanted advances at the restaurant in Cambodia where they work as beer promoters.

Beer promoters try to push beer on patrons at restaurants, clad in skimpy outfits. But making a living is not easy because the majority are paid according to the number of drinks they sell.

Their work also puts them in what activists-including those that attended the Third Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health, Nov. 17-20 – call a risky environment.

Channa said, she sometimes accepted money from male clients in return for sexual services because of the need to boost her meager income of about 55 US dollars a month.

“This job make me lose my dignity because the majority of clients abuse me,” the mother of two said at a discussion on sexual health issues in Cambodia, which was part of the conference.

“My colleagues and I have to face all these assaults. If not, we don’t have money to feed our families. My mother is too old and I have to be responsible for my brother who is still young,” Channa says, her voice breaking. Silence fell in the air-conditioned hall as she spoke.

Selling sex in this way is called indirect sex work because it is brought on by the environment the women work in and the economic pressures they face. It is called ‘indirect’ because it is commercial sex that happens at places like karaoke bars and outside regular venues like brothels.

It also puts the beer promoters, usually aged 15 to 39, at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS – in a country that already has a high 2.6 percent HIV prevalence rate among females aged 15-49.

Sophea, who has been working as a beer promoter for nine years and gets 58 dollars a month, says beer promoters are basically on their own.

When harassment and abuse-including rude language and unwanted sexual touching-happen in the bars and restaurants, the girls cannot ask their bosses for help. “The boss doesn’t intervene to help beer promoter girls because he doesn’t want to lose clients. If we complain a lot about the client behaviour, about their harassment, the client will not take our beer,’’ Sophea explained.

There are an estimated 4,000 women who do beer promotion for what are mostly international beer brands and the sight of these women selling and serving drinks of the brand they push has become a common one in Cambodia.

Stories about how a good number are getting HIV/AIDS are also increasingly common, activists who work on reproductive health say. According to national research carried out in 1998, every year, around 20 percent of beer promotion girls become HIV-positive.

Srilakshmi Ganapathi of the National University of Singapore, who did research on beer-selling women in Siem Reap province – a popular tourist destination because of the nearby Angkor Wat temple complex- adds that the women beer promoters work at night, 27 days in a month.

But the money they make is small compared to the income they earn for their beer companies-2,000 dollars a month.

“Beer selling women have to face risks to their health,” Ganapathi explained. “They have to consume unsafe quantities of alcohol on the job, around 1.23 litres nightly.”

“To meet family economic obligations, some accept propositions to exchange sex for money after work from clients with whom they are often forced to drink with,” Ganapathi added. “This reduces condom use and increases the risks of HIV/ AIDS and other health problems.”

Beer promoters living with HIV/AIDS also may not live long because their employers – the beer companies – don’t pay much attention to their health or give them health insurance. They also cannot easily get access to anti-retroviral drugs.

“These companies try to avoid their responsibilities towards the beer girls’ health and salaries,” said Ian Lubek of the University of Guelph in Canada, who has researched the issue in Siem Reap.

“Because payment for part-time jobs does not exist in Cambodian labour law, these western (beer) companies consider the beer promotion girls as being part of the advertisement for their product -but not employees,” Lubek said. “So they can’t get any health insurance covered by the company.”

He says more pressure must be brought on the foreign beer companies to become more responsible employers.

Already, companies like Heineken have responded to the pressure by getting their promoters to wear less revealing uniforms. Reports also say the company has arranged to bring women beer promoters home at night.

Voluntary groups, like CARE International, hope that more brands follow suit and that the private sector will work towards an industry-wide code of conduct for promoters and beer outlet owners.

Media reports also say that four beer companies have put in place attempts to improve working conditions, by holding training programmes that touch on responsible drinking and ways to deal with aggressive clients.

“We have to do something against beer companies that don’t respect the beer-selling women’s rights, by asking them to respect the labour law and commercial law,” Lubek added.

Some beer promoters and activists also increasingly question the use of terms like ‘beer promoters’ and ‘indirect sex work’ because they still carry the stigma of sex work.

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