Women new to entertainment-sector jobs describe fresh set of challenges
I HAVE THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE TO GO WITH A MAN OR NOT. IT IS MY DECISION.
A CROWD of young women lingers at the entrance to a Tuol Kork district beer garden. The hostesses sit in rows waiting for customers. Their dresses are cut short, and their make-up is carefully applied under perfectly sculpted hair.
It is a scene that has long been typical of drinking dens across the city. But some of the women at this establishment – and countless others like it – are new to the entertainment industry.
The global financial crisis saw Cambodia lose more than 75,000 garment factory jobs between September 2008 and October 2009, according to Ministry of Commerce figures. As laid-off employees struggle to find new jobs, some have accepted work as hostesses and promoters in beer gardens, where the country’s informal sex trade thrives in the open.
That’s where Huon Chetra, 26, found herself after the garment factory that employed her shut its doors late last year. Seeing few other options, she soon took a job as a hostess in Tuol Kork.
“Within my first week of work, I found that the men drinking would harass the women working here. They would touch everywhere on the body,
especially when they got drunk,” said Huon Chetra, who said she feels compelled to put up with the behaviour.
“If I tried to stop a man from touching me, he would get angry and push me away,” she said. “Then I would be replaced with a new hostess. This happens to every woman working in beer gardens.”
Huon Chetra knows of the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and is aware of the importance of practising safe sex, but said there are times when she doesn’t do so with her clients.
“Sometimes, I don’t ask [the client] to use a condom when he is really drunk,” she said.
“It is nothing to be surprised about. Men come for fun, and men who drink like to touch the girls and have sex. So we have to be fun with the clients. If we keep them happy, they will return again and again and the beer garden remains open.”
Concerns over HIV risks
It remains unclear just how many former garment workers like Huon Chetra have landed on their feet in the entertainment industry. An assessment released last year by the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that roughly one-sixth of 357 women and girls interviewed in the entertainment sector were former garment factory workers.
“Wages are declining and working hours are increasing ...” the report stated. “This is leading women to leave [garment sector] jobs in pursuit of perceived higher paying jobs with better working conditions, including those in the entertainment sector.”
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said labour unions have not undertaken extensive studies to see where the more than 75,000 garment workers who have lost their jobs in the last two years have ended up. But it’s clear that many have migrated towards the entertainment industry, he said.
“I found evidence by speaking with individual workers, some of them who used to work in garment factories,” Chea Mony said.
The government, too, lacks definitive data on how many former garment workers may now be working in the sex industry.
Regardless of the numbers, the current situation is cause for alarm for health professionals, said Ros Seilavath, deputy secretary general of the National Aids Authority.
“We are concerned that an increasing migration of females into the entertainment industry could pose a risk of an HIV epidemic, because it is difficult to access them to give them information about contracting HIV,” he said.
Advocates who work with sex workers say it has become increasingly difficult to provide the women with vital health information and access to HIV prevention efforts.
Due to an ongoing crackdown on establishments typically associated with the sex industry – including massage parlours and karaoke bars – advocates find that women are increasingly unwilling to call themselves sex workers because they are afraid of the potential consequences.
This has made it more difficult to even identify the women.
“It’s hard to know exactly where they are coming from,” said Ly Pisey, a technical assistant with the Women’s Network for Unity.
“But, for sure there are people who used to work in garment factories that have closed and are now working in karaoke or massage parlours. They are just trying to make a living.”
That is how Bopha, 25, found herself working as a hostess in the capital. The garment factory where she worked shut down last year, leaving her without any form of income.
She says she prefers working in the beer gardens to her old factory, where the hours were long and the job tedious.
“I don’t regret becoming a hostess,” she said. “I am happier here than when I was working in the factory. I have the freedom to choose to go with a man or not. It is my decision.”
However, Bopha didn’t tell her parents about her new occupation.
“I think they would be angry with me if they knew,” she said. “I think that many people think women who work as hostesses in the entertainment industry are no different from sex workers.”