Whenever a waitress fell pregnant in the popular Phnom Penh restaurant where Pheak* used to work, her boss would deliver the mother-to-be an ultimatum: get an abortion or quit.
“It was a rule. The boss did not want to have pregnant women in his workplace because it would bring bad luck,” Pheak, 27, said.
The boss also made it clear that some customers might expect waitresses to have sex with them and so weren’t appreciative of being served by pregnant women.
“My boss told us he just cannot allow a person with four eyes to work at his restaurant,” she added.
Pheak’s story may be an extreme example, but it’s an insight into the degrading and unlawful treatment confronting many young women in Cambodia’s restaurants, workers, union representatives and labour rights activists have told the Post.
In some cases, restaurants double as karaoke parlours, and women who sign up to wait tables or peddle beer for big brewers find themselves coerced into heavy drinking and prostitution.
“The biggest problem that women in karaoke face is abortion,” Ou Tep Phallin, Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF) vice president, said.
“Sometimes they are asked to test their urine once a week to see if they’re pregnant and face pressure to abort if they are,” she said, adding that she had heard stories like Pheak’s multiple times in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
But even in more “normal” restaurant situations, Tep Phallin said, young women endure conditions that fall a long way short of complying with the Labour Law.
“They’re taking home $70 a month, but many have to work seven days a week,” Tep Phallin said. “Some bosses don’t allow a single day off without cutting $10.”
This is another experience familiar to Pheak, who has gone from job to job in the past few years, often spending only a short time at one restaurant before growing tired of the conditions.
“I worked in my old workplace only one month because I could not stand it any more,” she said, recalling treatment by her boss. “My new job is good because it is not the same as that job.”
The conditions at Pheak’s new restaurant, however, still don’t meet basic legal requirements, not least because she doesn’t get a paid day off per week.
“I work seven days a week for $70 per month,” she said. “I can take a day off when I need to, but my wage is cut by $4. So I only take a day off if I can’t avoid it.”
Srey Leak*, 26, endured similar conditions during her first job at a Phnom Penh restaurant where she worked for six months without a day off.
“I couldn’t afford to take one,” she said. “My boss had promised me a day off after six months, but then refused to pay me for it, so I quit. I have since found much better work.”
Under the law, employees can be made to work a 48-hour week of eight-hour days. Two hours of paid overtime can be worked per day.
In a letter to the Post last week, a worker from a Phnom Penh café said her boss did not allow staff a break over Khmer New Year – and did not pay them penalty rates in return.
“We have only one day off per month. If we want an extra day off, they cut our wage $10 if we have sought prior written permission and $20 if we haven’t,” she said.
The workers’ salaries are $50 per month.
“We want the government and Labour Ministry officials to tell our boss to respect the Labour Law.”
Tep Phallin said her union is focusing on recruiting more restaurant workers who feel powerless.
“We do not have official unions in restaurants yet, because our members are worried they will be sacked,” she said. “So those workers have joined without telling their boss.”
CFSWF was also focusing on workers who didn’t realise their rights were being violated.
The Post spoke to one such waitress in a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s riverside yesterday who said her working conditions were good, even though her boss didn’t follow the Labour Law.
“We have to respect the internal rules that my manager has created for us to follow,” she said, adding that she is only allowed two days off per month before her $80 wage is cut. “We do not follow the Labour Law because it is not part of our internal rules.”
Dave Welsh, American Center for International Labour Solidarity country manager, said unionisation was gathering momentum only slowly due to the instability of the industry and the reluctance of employers to deal with unions.
“There’s not only a huge turnover of workers, there’s a huge turnover of restaurants. Employers don’t have the same stability as the garment industry,” he said.
“The fact that there’s a lot of turnover in the industry, however, does not mean it’s an informal sector. In fact [high turnover] often reflects the quality of workers’ experiences,” he said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, said the absence of a national minimum wage coupled with many workers not being organised in a union sense were concerning.
“The important thing is that there should be a national minimum wage and inspections should be in place to ensure working hours are in compliance with the law – enforcement here is very passive,” he said.
Heoung Sophun, a Ministry of Labour adviser in charge of the entertainment industry, disagreed, saying that the ministry pushed owners of restaurants and karaoke venues to respect the Labour Law, partly through regular inspections of restaurants.
“Wages, paid annual holidays and weekly days off are spelled out in the law,” he said. “If we find that restaurant owners are not following the law . . . we fine them or send them to court if they continue violating the law.”
Sophun said the pregnancy tests in restaurants and karaoke venues that Tep Phallin spoke of were an “absolute” abuse of workers rights and said officials looked into all complaints filed.
One restaurant owner, Vorng Bunny, manager of the Luxury Boutique restaurant on Phnom Penh’s riverside, said she had regular visits from Ministry of Labour inspectors.
Such visits don’t worry her, though, because she “always follows the Labour Law”.
“My five staff work eight hours per day, but they are paid more if they work overtime,” she said. “I allow them to take one day off per week and they can take more if they need to. I do not cut their wages. We have an understanding.”
*Names have been changed