by Michelle Tolson
Entertainment venues are very popular in Cambodia. They are well supplied with beer and young women to serve it. Karaoke clubs and beer gardens are frequented by Khmer men who expect women to sit and drink with them. This can result in beer sellers drinking an average of five drinks a night according to independent researcher Ian Lubek. All this occurs despite assurances from beer companies that beer sellers are not expected to drink on the job.
NGOs and other organizations have done much research on women working in entertainment venues in Cambodia and the range of workplace issues that result from women working for low pay in an environment with heavy alcohol use. Sex work, for example, often becomes a parallel world for beer promoters. To meet their financial obligations, about half of these women perform sex work at a rate of about 25 USD per night according to Lubek. According to the 2011 International Labor Organization (ILO) report, the number of women crossing into sex work is actually much higher – a phenomenon attributed to client expectations coupled with low salaries in entertainment work.
A decade ago, Cambodia was in the midst of an HIV crisis. HIV rates peaked at over 42 percent for brothel-based workers and 18 percent for entertainment workers, according to the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology, STD (NCHADS) Cambodia. Local men switched from brothels to entertainment venues for sex because the latter was perceived as less risky. Sexual health education campaigns spearheaded by NGOs advocating strict condom adherence brought HIV rates down in both groups. Unofficial statistics from health workers in Siem Reap suggest rates dropped to under five percent by 2008 in brothel and entertainment workers.
However, bonded labor, the previous HIV epidemic, and problems of trafficking became cause for the U.S. State Department to pressure the Cambodian government into signing the 2008 Law of Suppression of Trafficking, closing brothels and driving brothel-based workers into entertainment venues, effectively ending the harm-reduction campaigns. The financial crisis of 2008 also resulted in the closure of numerous garment factories, displacing thousands of women, many of whom moved into the entertainment industry. According to the ILO, 21,000 women moved into entertainment work between 2008 and 2009, increasing competition and keeping wages as low as 35 USD a month. These drivers have shifted the landscape of sex work and entertainment, creating a situation where women are less able to negotiate for fair wages.
Current wages for entertainment workers do not meet their minimum needs. As one beer promoter relayed in the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation’s (CFSWF) educational video: “I get such small wages and cannot support my family’s living from having to spend money on daily food, children’s tuition fee, and rent.”
The issue of alcohol dependence has not been addressed as much as HIV prevention has. Lubek reported that women drank on average five drinks a night, 27 nights a month, which has a greater impact on Cambodian women due to their smaller stature and lower BMI. The ILO reports that some women drink as much as 12 cans of beer a night. According to Lubek, there is a risk of fetal alcohol syndrome developing in the offspring of entertainment workers.
Violence against women working in entertainment is also endemic. Women have reported being followed home, being raped, and having guns pulled on them in clients’ pursuit of sex. Women that become mistresses to married clients have had acid thrown on them by angry wives.
One beer seller revealed, “Some people don’t value beer promoters as they call us Srey Lang Se (derogatory for ‘beer girl’). Even neighbors have talked, looking down on me, and some clients do not value me, even though spots are shown on TV to not discriminate against beer promotion workers.”
In contrast to the dangers and low wages entertainers experience, beer companies and entertainment venues are experiencing record profits. There is no industry association for entertainment venues, making profits difficult to verify, but CFSWF has taken note of the constant growth of these businesses. The Phnom Penh Post on January 17, 2012 reported that advertisements by beer companies in Cambodia topped 17.6 million USD by December of 2011. Over 90 percent of beer sales within Cambodia come from major players such as Heineken/Asia-Pacific Breweries, Carlsberg, Anheuser-Busch/InBev, SAB-Miller, and San Miguel – multinational beer companies making millions of dollars a year in the Asia-Pacific region according to annual reports.
In 2010, AB/InBev group – headquartered in Leuven, Belgium – reported gross profits of 759 million USD for the Asia-Pacific Region. San Miguel, originating in the Philippines, reported overall gross profits of 97 million USD. Also in 2010, Heineken in Amsterdam (and its subsidiary APB, in Singapore) recorded revenues of 269 million USD for Asia, and Carlsberg in Denmark earned 733 million USD in Asia.
Yet, despite these profits, beer companies do not provide a living wage for beer salespeople. During a successful July, 2011 strike against Cambrew/Angkor Beer, a Cambodian company partially owned by Carlsberg, CFSWF recorded an impassioned speech from a beer seller: “I am very angry! Some outlet owners discriminate and say that beer promotion workers depend only on a strike. They do not understand our suffering. Our way of living is not appropriate.”
Cambrew, now operating their own in-house union – Trade Union Personnel Worker’s Progressive of Angkor Beer – has used intimidation to get women to withdraw their membership from CFSWF. The Cambrew union also claimed responsibility for the beer promoters back pay victory of an extra two dollars a day for beer sellers working Sundays and holidays as their own, although they were formed after CFSWF’s strike.
Mora Sar, president of CFSWF, is happy that workers have received compensation but would like Cambrew and Carlsberg to recognize CFSWF’s union. “[On February 23,] I sent a notice for union election for the fourth mandate, but they reject to sign to show that they have received our notification. This attitude shows clearly that Cambrew and Carlsberg continue to discriminate against unions and abuse workers’ rights. This attitude is unacceptable and we will fight for our rights.”
Cambrew continues to fire its female workers without legal cause for simply standing up for their rights and is also starting to use short-term contracts, following the lead of garment factories whose contracts now last a few months.
These are hurdles workers in the informal economy endure as they unionize to get safer working conditions and fair pay. The Solidarity Center, located in Washington, D.C., reported in December of 2011 that workers in this sector throughout the world – including maids, migrant farm workers, and taxi drivers – often risk losing jobs when standing up to illegal situations as they lack the protection afforded the formal sector.
Demanding accountability from publicly traded international corporations is an important step in improving local working conditions, not only for beer sellers, but also for karaoke dancers, singers, and hostesses hired by the venues, who are also expected to drink with men.
Michelle Tolson works and travels between Asia and the United States. She has an MSc in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Michelle has written several articles for The UB Post, an English newspaper in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia about gender violence, civil society initiatives, and cultural topics.