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
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
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
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.
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
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
Becks said it "strongly condemned" combining beer promotion
with prostitution, and had informed its partner in Cambodia of "the
"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.
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."