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'Ethical beer' campaign to target Western drinkers

'Ethical beer' campaign to target Western drinkers

In a bid to improve the lives of beer girls, a Canadian university professor has

announced he will launch an online campaign to discourage consumers from buying

beer brands which exploit their sales staff in Cambodia.

Ian Lubek, a

psychology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has taken his cue

from the success of fair-trade coffee and chocolate brands in the

West.

Lubek said he would launch a website, called ethicalbeer.com, later

this year to highlight the plight of Cambodia's often-exploited beer girls. Low

wages force many into informal sex work, and as a result they have one of the

highest HIV infection rates in the country.

He is hopeful his new

approach will be more successful than previous attempts to deal directly with

the major brewers. Among the international beers marketed here are Heineken,

Fosters, Becks and Stella Artois.

"We're a little disappointed with the

direct approach," he said. "One transnational company just plays telephone tag

and doesn't phone you back. Another major Dutch beer [has an] excellent policy

for its Western workers, but does not consider the beer girls to fall under this

policy."

The website will divide the beer companies between those which

have an ethical policy towards the saleswomen who sell their product, and those

which do not. Visitors to the site will be encouraged to boycott those which

fall short.

Beer girls are a common sight in hundreds of restaurants

across Cambodia. They sport branded uniforms of either international or local

beers, and their task is to sell as much of their brand as possible. The

international brewers use local distributors to market their product here, which

they say absolves them from any responsibility for their welfare.

But the

wages paid, usually around $45 a month plus a small sum for every case of beer

sold, are too low to survive. That compels many beer girls to engage in sex work

with customers who drink their product, a practice that carries significant

risks. Studies carried out by the National Center for HIV/AIDS have shown that

one-fifth of them are infected with the HIV virus.

Prang Chanthy, project

officer at Family Health International/Impact, said many of the women also

suffered violence at the hands of the customers, and found it impossible to

escape the cycle of indirect sex work.

"In the places selling beer they

have many clients who come to buy sex," she said. "After they get ill from

HIV/AIDS, they are afraid to go home because their family will lose face, so

they die in a hospital in Phnom Penh."

Lubek, who is funded by the Elton

John AIDS Foundation, said brewers should take more responsibility for the

safety of their workers. As well as paying higher salaries, he wants the women

to receive standard company health care packages.

But the international

brewers have shown little sympathy, Lubek said. They classify the selling as

'promotional activities', which precludes the beer girls from receiving standard

health packages and benefits.

That is despite the fact that they work

regular hours and pick up a paycheck every month.

"If you bring western

corporations into a developing county and take money out of that country and

don't apply the same standards, that is exploitative," Lubek said. "If 20

percent [of the workforce] are HIV positive, that is downright

irresponsible."

Heineken International representative, Sietze Montijn,

told the Post by email that "members of the promotional team are not employed by

Heineken" and consequently did not qualify for company benefits. On the subject

of salaries, said Montijn, "wages paid are well in line with the local

customs".

Becks said it "strongly condemned" combining beer promotion

with prostitution, and had informed its partner in Cambodia of "the

problem".

"We regularly stress that the exclusive task of promotional

girls is to advertize our brand," the company stated in a press release. However

it gave no indication of steps taken to assist the beer girls.

Lubek said

his main criteria for ethical status would be a doubling of salaries, a step

which should eradicate most of the indirect sex work, and the inclusion of the

women in the company's health care policies.

Initially the site will be

aimed at students attending his university, but his hope is that the campaign

will take off around the world.

"Every time I talk about this, a lot of

people get furious about corporate responsibility," he said. "You find more and

more consumers who are asking for fair trade, and that puts pressure on the

company. I'll say as soon as they start paying their workers five dollars a day

and providing health care, they will move to the ethical list."

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