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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Women run Cambodia's street economy: report

A woman cooks food at her streetside stall in central Phnom Penh last year.
A woman cooks food at her streetside stall in central Phnom Penh last year. Pha Lina

Women run Cambodia's street economy: report

Women make up the majority of street vendors selling food, clothes and a range of other retail goods across Cambodia, a new report in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Business has revealed.

Using data from Cambodia’s economic census, researchers Nobuo Hirohata and Kazuhiro Fukuyo, from Yamaguchi University in Japan, determined that 8.3 percent of all Cambodian enterprises are street businesses, and that women represent a full 76.6 percent of the people running them.

The overrepresentation in the informal labour market, experts said yesterday, is the result of a lack of economic opportunities for women, who are, nevertheless, expected to support their families economically.

“One of the biggest issues is that women in the region still have very low education levels, so often the low-income women get to an age when they need to work and support their families, and this is their only option,” said Miguel Chanco, lead analyst for Southeast Asia for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

“This is quite prevalent in Southeast Asia, especially in low-income areas,” he added.

Other observers pointed to persistent discrimination in the formal labour market, particularly in white-collar jobs, as the reason why many women start street businesses to support their families.

“In a lot of white-collar jobs there is a preference for males, so it’s not just a glass ceiling, it is discrimination,” said William Conklin, country director at the labour advocacy NGO Solidarity Center.

But this exclusion from certain economic sectors doesn’t relieve women of their duty to provide, Conklin noted.

“In traditional Cambodian society there is a double standard for women,” he said. “They are expected to do most of the work, whether it’s in the house or earning money in the formal and informal economy. And there is an idea that women are there to support families and are meant to send money home, and if the family has debt then they are expected to pay that, too.”

The report also found that the number of street businesses has increased continuously since 2007. This could be attributed to the fact that it’s become more difficult for families to survive with only one breadwinner, said Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, an NGO.

“One person cannot earn to feed the whole family now, so the housewife is also going out to make a living,” Sopheap said. “And men mostly have work that is salary-based, so if you are selling things on the street it’s considered a job for women.”

Even when men sell goods on the street, Sopheap added, it’s often a larger-scale operation. “Look at selling bananas,” she said. “Men will sell them on motorbikes; women will sit on the street. It’s the same job just at a different scale.”

Still, the report noted that informal enterprises had their upsides. Their average profit rates, for instance, tend to be higher than those for other businesses, and average profits per employee are somewhat higher as well.

What’s more, sectors of the informal labour market more typically dominated by women – such as selling food and beverages – tend to be more profitable than male-dominated sectors such as fixing motorbikes or running an outdoor barbershop, the study found.

Nonetheless, working in the informal sector often means that women don’t have access to benefits like employer-provided health care, said the EIU’s Chanco. As a result, he said, the economy isn’t reaching its full potential.

“These people aren’t covered by health care and other services tied to the formal sector, so those expenses are coming out of pocket,” Chanco said. “And that has an impact on the economy.”

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