Over 27,000 women have quit their jobs in the garment sector since March this year and found more lucrative work as 'beer girls' in the capital’s booming entertainment business
Despite the risks of the job, which include sexual harassment and even rape, increasing numbers of women are becoming beer girls.
Trend towards beer halls short-lived
According to Om Mean, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of
Labour, the main factor driving young Cambodian women out of the
garment factories and into beer gardens is inflation. "[Inflation] has
increased 37 percent since early 2008. Everything costs more, including
water, electricity and food. People can't support themselves anymore on
a small salary," he said, referring to the US$60 to $120 salary per
month that garment workers can earn.
According to Om Mean, the migration of garment workers appears to be a
short-lived trend and government efforts to strengthen the garment
sector will lure women out of the beer halls. "It is normal that people
would look for jobs with better incomes when the economy has problems,
but I don't think the women who become beer girls will stay in those
jobs for very long," he said. "The government is working hard to
strengthen the garment sector and ensure fair competition in terms of
the World Trade Organisation, and with regard to Vietnam and China."
Cambodia has attracted hordes of new business investors as economic indicators improve, but one of the Kingdom's largest and most reliable sectors, the garment industry, stands in peril as a new generation of young women, faced with runaway inflation rates, turns to a more lucrative trade to support themselves and their families.
Hun Danet, 23, left her home in Kampot province two years ago and moved to Sihanoukville. She became a garment worker like so many other young women looking for a better life. Now she works as a "beer girl" in Happy Happy beer garden in Phnom Penh.
"I've worked in a beer garden for six months and I can earn more money here than in a factory," she said. "At the factory, I earned between US$60 and $120 per month. I get $300 as a beer girl. I'm happy because the work doesn't make me tired," Hun Danet said.
But her move to one of the capital's ubiquitous beer halls has not come without a price.
"I hate myself for being like this, but I don't have any other choice. I haven't told my mother or my other relatives that I work as a beer girl because they would be unhappy and look down on me," she said.
"My customers used to ask me to have sex with them, but I told them that I sell beer, not my body."
She said many of her friends and customers judge her harshly for selling beer at the beer garden. "I'd rather be doing something else, but I can't get any other well-paying job because I don't have the right knowledge or skills."
Hun Danet hopes to leave the beer halls as soon as she earns enough money to give her family a better life.
"When I worked in a factory, I rarely sent money to my mother. Now I can send her $100 every month," she said.
"I think all factory workers who decide to become beer girls or karaoke girls force themselves to do it because they can't get any other job that pays as well. Some might think $300 is a small amount of money, but for me it's a huge amount."
There are about 350 garment factories in Cambodia employing some 350,000 workers, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) - up from 220 factories and 250,000 workers in 2004. Most of the workers are young Cambodian women who have left lives in rural provinces where they lived on less than $1 per day.
Factories losing workers
Chea Mony, president of Cambodia's Free Trade Union, estimates that more than 27,000 women across the Kingdom have left factory jobs for employment in nightclubs, beer gardens and Karaoke clubs since March 2008.
"Salaries in the garment sector have not kept pace with rising consumer costs, and corruption is everywhere in the factories. So, more women are forced to look for better-paying jobs," he said.
"The loss of workers could devastate Cambodian factories. We're worried because as factories have been trying to recruit new workers, the government tells us there's no problem. Everything is going smoothly," he added.
"The government has to be willing to eliminate corruption in the factories and also among government officials."
Vantha, 28, spends her nights working in a beer garden and her days in a garment factory. She's trying to save money to pay fees for building a new house.
I don't care what other people say about me or my job because they're not paying me or feeding me.
"I've worked in the beer garden for just five days, so I'm not that good," she said.
"It is very different from factory work. I get a lot of money and I work less hours. I earn about $300 per month. I plan to work here until I'm at least 30," she said.
Vantha knows the risks that working in a beer garden holds for her reputation but remains defiant.
"I don't care what other people say about me or my job because they're not paying me or feeding me."
Life as a garment worker is not all smiles as salaries remain low despite massive inflation. Many factory women come from the countryside and continue to support their impoverished families.
A Phnom Penh-based NGO says the departure of garment workers for beer halls and nightclubs is a growing trend.
"Through my work, I see more and more factory workers quitting their jobs because of low salaries and taking jobs as beer girls because they need money to pay the rent, buy food and send money to their families," said Nop Sarin Sreyroth, director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC).
"The main problem is poverty. As women from the countryside come to Phnom Penh to work in factories, they soon learn that they can make much more money as a beer or karaoke girl," she said.
"They know these jobs are not considered respectable, that people will think they are worthless and men will look down on them as prostitutes. But many women see it as their only option."
Some women might be willing to risk their reputations for the sake of a better paycheck, but Nop Sarin Sreyroth knows the dangers can be far more perilous.
"What they don't consider is that they could become victims of sexual assault by men who will try to have sex with them, or rape them if they refuse."
Om Mean, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Labour, credits the high cost of living with driving more women from factories to beer halls and says the inflation rate is staggeringly higher than other government officials have been willing to admit.
"Young women must find alternative employment that will provide an adequate income," Om Mean said.