A vigorous labour-rights movement outside factories has been paramount in the government essentially doubling the minimum garment wage over the past three years.
But, unexpectedly, one union leader says, this activism has also improved the lives of another demographic: beer promoters.
Sar Mora, president of Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), said yesterday that the high-profile push for garment wage increases has made it easier to negotiate better conditions for workers who sell for the country’s biggest beer companies.
In turn, he added, higher wages for these women – who work in restaurants, beer gardens and bars – has helped drive down coerced workplace drinking and shameful levels of sexual assault and harassment.
In the case of many promoters selling beer for Cambrew – which makes Angkor Beer and is partly owned by Carlsberg – wages have risen from $50 per month in 2011 to $155 now, Mora said. The minimum garment wage is $128.
“The wages are a very important element in improvements,” he said. “The [garment strikes] were a part of this. We meet with the companies . . . and there is a kind of [sense] that workers [in general] need an increase.”
In 2012, the Post published research from Ian Lubek, adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada, that showed 85 per cent of 1,660 Cambodian beer promoters surveyed over an eight-year period regularly drank at work.
“Our research shows that beer promoters are consuming on average 1.5 litres of beer per night – that’s six glasses of beer, 27 nights per month,” Lubek said at the time.
Women were being coerced into drinking with customers and offering sexual services in order to make enough money to survive, he explained.
According to a recent CFSWF survey, Mora said, the number of workers drinking with customers has decreased significantly, as have instances of sexual assault and harassment.
“For salary-based workers, they are not sitting with customers, they are not drinking as much. For many commission-based workers, though, it’s still [as bad],” he said.
Phol Sophea, deputy director for CFSWF in Siem Reap, said she personally had noticed improvements, though abuse remained a significant problem.
“About 70 per cent of clients now understand about beer girls’ work – but the other 30 per cent are still abusing them or forcing them to drink with them,” she said. “I expect that this job will be better for [women] as salaries continue to rise and we – unions and [NGOs] – continue cooperating to eliminate discrimination.”
In response to criticism, major beer companies created the Beer Selling Industry Cambodia (BSIC) in 2006, to improve working conditions in establishments selling beers like Angkor, Anchor, Tiger and Carlsberg.
BSIC’s latest industry report, written by Indochina Research and released in 2014, found an overall decrease in the “level of pressure to drink alcohol at work” – but noted that such pressure remained high.
“Overall, most BSIC workers express high satisfaction with their working conditions,” the report says. “The main reasons for satisfaction are flexible working hours, incentive programs and eligible holidays provided under Cambodian labor law.”
But other problems remain. Although fewer BSIC beer promoters are sexually harassed, victims experience it more often than before, the report says.
Beer promoter Pheak Samnang, 29, who has sold Angkor Beer in Siem Reap for 10 years, has noticed a marked improvement in her work environment.
“Most customers understand more about our job,” she said, adding that she now receives $155 per month, up from $100 in 2011. “[Now], customers do not force me to drink beer. If they ask, I refuse.”
Samnang believes public awareness campaigns have also led to respect for beer promoters, and CFSWF leaders agree.
But some workers remain scared to unionise, Sophea said, while Mora added that establishments are hiring “hostesses” with less knowledge of their rights – and at lower rates – than beer promoters.
Officials at Cambrew were not available for comment.