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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The cost of living

The cost of living

This 26-year-old woman was a beer girl and part time sex worker in the provinces. When she developed AIDS her family banished her and she was found homeless on the streets in Phnom Penh in May 2000.

Research suggests more beer girls are being forced by poverty to provide clients

with sex. But figures showing that one in five are HIV positive raise the question

of responsibility.

To sit down at any one of hundreds of Phnom Penh restaurants is to immed-iately

be swamped by young women in tight-fitting outfits bearing the logos of local and

international brewers.

 

Global brand names such as Carlsberg, Stella Artois, Fosters, Heineken, Beck's,

Tiger, San Miguel and others use beer promoters to push their product in Cambodia.

The names of local and international corporate brands follow you as you take your

seat.

"Heineken, Heineken," pleads one girl in her green and white dress as she

tries to have her brand chosen over the others. Drink enough Heineken and she'll

earn a little extra commission. For most companies that is an extra $2 to $3 per

carton.

But for increasing numbers of "beer girls", selling sex is where much of

their money is made.

"It's becoming more common for beer girls to sell sex," says Var Chivorn,

associate executive director of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC),

which works with beer girls. "Some girls come to the job with that expectation

in mind."

The most recent Behavioral Sentinel Survey produced by the National Center for HIV/AIDS

(NCHADS) found that Cambodian men are going to fewer brothel-based direct sex workers.

At the same time however, more beer promoters are selling sex every year, up from

12.8 percent in 1997 to 30.4 percent in 2001. Other estimates are higher: one survey

of 379 beer girls conducted in 2000 found 40 percent exchange sex for money or gifts

and in some provinces the BSS found that rate was 60 percent.

"It's poverty," says Chivorn explaining the reason so many girls have moved

into sex work. "They need to send money back to their families and their income

is not enough. They have no choice but to sell sex."

Along with any indirect sex work in Cambodia go the inherent twin risks of violence

and HIV/AIDS. But at a time when so called "corporate responsibility" is

in the public eye, what responsibility do multinational corporations take for the

culture of sex work that engulfs their product marketing in Cambodia?

"We're certainly comfortable with the concept of using promotional staff,"

says Jo Ford of Fosters Brewing International. "That's common practice to sell

a range of products throughout Asia - not just beer."

Like other international brewers, Fosters contracts its local distribution to a Cambodia-based

firm. Fosters' Asian operation runs at a loss and, says Ford, is a "pretty small

time distributor in Cambodia".

"We set guidelines and parameters, then use local importers and distributors.

That's the model we use all over the world," she says. "We set standards

for marketing and promotion and the local distributor implements them. We take health

and safety very seriously.

"There is a training program for staff that covers how to handle difficult customers,

awareness of HIV/AIDS, what to do if they are approached for sex and so on."

Critics don't believe that training programs are enough.

"That doesn't give them security or protection," says Rosanna Barbero of

Oxfam Hong Kong.

In May last year the Khmer HIV NGO Alliance (KHANA) published an investigation into

beer and karaoke girls. Entertainment Workers and HIV/AIDS was based on interviews

with workers and clients. It paints a picture of women walking a tightrope of sexual

availability.

"Workers are encouraged, if not obliged, to flirt and consume alcohol and sometimes

drugs with their customers, allow customers to touch and fondle their bodies and

to tolerate harassment and aggressive behavior from customers," the report says.

Restaurant owners will often coerce women into drinking with customers in order to

keep the beer flowing, it noted, while some beer girls told researchers they had

lost their jobs by angering clients when they refused sex.

"Achieving high levels of customer satisfaction was their primary duty,"

the report states. "One ex-beer promoter supervisor said that during their training

women are told to remember to 'treat the customer as the king and [remember] that

the customer employs you'."

All over Phnom Penh the girls can be seen being plied with beer and groped by their

male clients. It is clear that men use the commission as leverage.

"If I let them touch me, then they say that the beer tastes very good,"

says one Foster's girl. Adds another: "If I say I won't go with them they won't

drink my beer."

Twenty-year-old Neary has been a beer girl for just three months. She says her husband

now wants her to find a new job.

"He cannot contain his anger when I tell him about the men touching me. Normally

they abuse me verbally or they kiss and embrace me in front of the other customers,"

she says. "I make between $50 and $80 a month. Sometimes the customer is kind

and gives me extra money if I sit with them."

Others customers, says Neary, are more prone to using physical violence.

"One man threatened me with a gun. After drinking for an hour he showed me the

gun in his belt and said, 'If you don't sleep with me I'll shoot you dead'."

Neary escaped unharmed, but around half a dozen beer girls the Post interviewed were

familiar with stories of violence and occasionally rape. But whether or not they

decide to sell sex, many conceal their job from their families due to the stigma.

"I told my family I work for a Chinese factory in Phnom Penh," says Ly,

a Foster's beer girl in a large restaurant across the Japanese Bridge. Like many,

Ly moved to Phnom Penh from the provinces in search of a better income.

She says that by working two shifts a day she can earn $120 a month. However she

has no desire to sell sex or to continue as a beer girl in the long term.

Ly cuts a demure figure in her knee length skirt, but other companies do not offer

the option of less revealing clothing. Some girls find the outfits quite confronting,

says Nith Sopha of FHI/Impact, an NGO which works to prevent HIV in high risk groups.

When one girl expressed embarrassment at her uniform, Sopha recalls, "the company

said, 'If you're shy then don't work here'."

The beer girls pay a deposit of between $5-$10 for their uniform. In traditional

Cambodia, short skirts and tight-fitting outfits are seen as inappropriate for virtuous

women. The outfits beer girls must wear, on the other hand, immediately sexualize

them in the eyes of their customers.

Heineken dresses its staff in tight-fitting, shiny tennis style dresses. For other

companies the mini-skirt is part of the uniform in a country where ankle length skirts

are viewed as appropriate.

"Most of the customers look down on us, but not the ones with a good heart,"

says one Heineken girl who fled to Phnom Penh ten years ago when her parents tried

to force her to marry.

Nith Sopha says family conflict and poverty drive women to take up low status employment

as beer girls.

"Most come from families where there have been upheavals and instability such

as parental divorce, abandonment by husbands, or rape," she says. "Others

are sold as virgins to an older man for around $400, then sold to a brothel a few

days later."

The girls then drift between direct and indirect sex work.

According to the Behavioral Sentinel Survey, beer girls earn an average of $70 per

month with salary and commission. Even that is merely a subsistence wage in Phnom

Penh.

"Our promotional staff get a base salary of $20 plus commission," says

Fosters' Jo Ford. "With that they can average about $60 per month. That's at

least double the wage of a Cambodian government worker."

"That's not a living wage and government workers have other opportunities to

generate income," retorts Barbero who is particularly critical of the incentive

model. "That pushes them to work harder and longer and to sell using whatever

techniques they can," she says.

Yet even such small sums are alluring to those in the countryside with no work prospects.

Rural poverty shows few signs of alleviation, and there are practically no jobs in

the cities.

The country's labor force increases by as much as 200,000 a year, according to the

Asian Development Bank, and for most there are no jobs available. The economics of

poverty and job scarcity, say NGOs, will ensure more young women continue to head

to the cities, and often into sex work.

KHANA's study found that beer girls are often young women from the provinces who

move to the cities looking for work. They usually live away from their families,

increasing the likelihood of them selling sex.

And while the wages of beer girls are not high, sex can be sold at a premium. While

the services of a brothel-based sex worker earn her just a few dollars, some beer

girls can get $20 to $50 a night.

The higher price is mainly due to the fact that beer girls are not seen as prostitutes,

despite the fact that many engage in commercial sex. The girls themselves have greater

control over their clients, according to the KHANA study.

When it comes to exchanging sex for money a beer girl will generally have just a

few regular clients, as well as the power in most cases to refuse him. Beer girls

typically spend the first three or four meetings with a client sizing him up.

In a few rare cases a restaurant may take a percentage of the money a girl earns

for sex, but it is usually undertaken on a freelance basis, with them meeting clients

at work then arranging a rendezvous later.

Often a girl will have a tata-chenh chem, an older man, usually a high ranking official

who may buy a young girl's virginity then maintain an occasional relationship with

her for several years. Literally translated the phrase means "grandfather who

feeds me" since the tata may also pay rent or buy gifts for the girl.

That element of continuity with partners coupled with increased control in choosing

a partner is one reason beer girls are likely to engage in riskier behavior. That

brings with it a higher risk of HIV infection: NCHADS estimates around one-fifth

of beer girls are HIV-positive.

NCHADS' Behavioral Sentinel Survey noted that 56 percent of sexually active beer

girls use condoms with clients. That figure has climbed steadily since 1997 when

just 10 percent did so, but is still well below the comparable figure for brothel-based

sex workers who registered 90 percent condom use last year. There are many reasons

for that, according to KHANA's report.

"Women are in a weak position to refuse condoms: fear of violence, fear of non-payment,

or where there is an ongoing relationship. This is affected further by the fact that

both the worker and customer usually drink alcohol," it states.

Discrimination against HIV-positive beer girls is relatively uncommon, says KHANA,

although some girls are fired after testing HIV positive. Most infected beer girls

work until they are too ill to continue. They then return to their home province.

They are rarely fired for being ill. Under article 36 of the HIV/AIDS law passed

through the National Assembly on June 14 it is illegal to fire any worker based on

perceived or suspected HIV status.

Some beer companies are aware of the issues and have implemented guidelines to protect

the workers promoting their brand.

"Our rules are that the beer promoter should arrive at work at 4 p.m., be taken

to the venue, then collected and taken home after work," says Ford of Fosters'

guidelines.

Heineken's Phnom Penh distributor said the brewer had a policy on beer girls, but

was unable to say exactly what the company's policy was.

The manager of Brauerei Beck & Co Asia, which makes Beck's beer, was on leave.

Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) offers reproductive health clinical

services to women and trains beer girls at several companies to be "peer educators".

The NGO has been working with Angkor Beer for two years to select and train a small

number of girls in HIV/AIDS prevention. The girls are then asked to pass the information

to all their friends and colleagues.

RHAC's Chivorn says the program has been effective in bringing many more women to

the the NGO's clinic, but it has not compiled data on the project's effect on infection

rates.

Through access to such programs, beer companies have engaged with some of the issues

faced by beer girls. Despite this, none has reversed the trend in which more and

more of their product promoters supplement their income with high risk sex.

Barbero emphasizes that the if the beer companies pulled out they wouldn't be doing

the beer girls any favors. Instead they should "ensure they're not subject to

harrassment, ensure their security, and pay them a set salary and a living wage".

Editor's note: All names of beer girls have been changed.

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