‘Beer Girls’ Need a Union, Advocates Say

Beneath a lattice of festive lights, a handful of women, dressed in miniskirts and tight shirts with plunging necklines, poured out beer for men at Street 63’s Happy Garden Restaurant on a recent evening.

The young women—com­monly known as “beer girls”—sauntered around, sometimes sitting and flirting with cus­to­mers as they earned a small commission for each drink they poured.

Customers at Phnom Penh’s beer gardens don’t just pick their favorite beer, but also their favorite woman, and some women working in the beer promotion field find themselves slipping into the freelance sex work that has become associated with their profession.

But that trend could be about to change. Beer and alcohol promo­ters are scheduled to meet with gar­­ment factory unions in No­vem­ber to discuss the ins and outs of form­­ing a union of their own, former minister of women’s affairs and opposition party member Mu Sochua said.

Advocates of the plan hope that a union would enable them to collectively push for beer companies to pay an official salary, which would discourage promotion work­ers from engaging in sex work to make ends meet.

They also hope that a union would give them a louder voice, and help the promoters take complaints about sexual harassment by customers to the courts.

“Beer and alcohol promotion girls rarely speak out on violence or any abuses against them,” Mu Sochua said. “Those girls are considered beer promoters, not em­plo­­yees, so we cannot use labor law to help them.”

If the women were recognized as employees with official salaries, the labor law would help provide for treatment in case of injury on the job, ensure minimum wages and regulate the amount of hours they work, Mu Sochua said.

But an advantage of commission-only work is the flexibility to come and go as you please rather than working regular shifts, said Lou­­ise Bury, who formerly worked for NGO Care as project ad­viser on a beer promoter study.

“With unionization there’s more rules and regulations, and some wo­men aren’t going to like that,” she said.

Duong Srei Khouch, a 21-year-old beer promoter working in Phnom Penh, said she hopes un­ionization may afford her the ability to refuse drinks.

“The more you drink with cli­ents, the more you can sell, and the more you can earn,” she said. “I get drunk every night.”

Prior attempts to deny custom­ers who asked her to sit and drink with them were met with threats of violence, she said, adding that when she complained to the res­taurant owner, he threatened her with the loss of her job.

Some beer companies have al­ready moved toward promoters work­ing in teams rather than alone, and have pledged to make uni­forms less skimpy, Bury said.

But the managers of drinking es­tablishments haven’t been ac­countable for what happens to the wom­en, Bury said, add­ing that local authorities offer them little protection and that society tends to look down on them.

Even the women themselves do not always look after one another.

“There’s a lot of competition among them, selling for different companies,” Bury added.

Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Work­ers Deputy President Chhorn Sokha said that although her union helps beer promoters, as well as motorbike taxi drivers and other non-unionized groups, beer sellers would do well to have their own union.

“Clients are like gods, and pro­mo­­tion girls appear as their slaves,” Chhorn Sokha said. “If they complained, they would be jobless. If they continue to work, they suffer abuse.” She suggested an $80 monthly salary as an adequate living wage for the women to be paid by beer firms.

A majority of the approximately 4,000 promoters in beer gardens, restaurants and karaoke bars earn no official salary, according to the Care survey of 640 people working in the business. Rather, they live off commissions and bonuses from the amount of beer they sell.

Singapore and Thailand have re­strictions on the amount of alcohol con­sumed by promoters, but Cam­­­bodia does not, and promoters consume an average of six drinks nightly, according to psychology professor Ian Lubek, who has studied the issue.

Sexual harassment is commonplace in beer gardens, and one con­troversial government survey es­timated that 37 percent of beer pro­moters had sex for money or gifts.

Care Country Director Sharon Wil­kinson said that alcohol pro­mo­tion women involved in commercial sex are in the minority, but that the commission-based system puts the women in a vulnerable situation.

Representatives of Tiger and Angkor beer companies declined to comment for this article.

Chea Mong, general manager of ASIA Sunrise Co, Ltd, which imports Japan’s Asahi beer to Cam­bodia, said his firm lets their promotion women choose wheth­er to receive commissions or an of­ficial salary.

“I always enforce the democra­tic way,” he said.

However, a majority of the As­ahi promotion women ask to work for commissions rather than salaries, which are between $60 to $80 per month, Chea Mong said.

“There are more than 100 promotion girls promoting my beers,” he said. “Some of them can earn between $80 and $300 per month, depending on their ability to at­tract clients.”

He added that he supports the move to unionize and has never had complaints about customers’ treatment of his employees.

 

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