Gov’t Unveils New Rules to Protect Sex Workers

New government regulations for the entertainment industry announced Wednesday aim to offer sex workers and other vulnerable employees increased protection under the Labor Law, but experts warned that implementation would be a long and difficult task.

During an event at the Labor Ministry, minister Ith Sam Heng announced that the new regulations—for bars, karaoke parlors and adult entertainment venues—aim to improve the lives and legal protection of the venues’ mostly female staff.

The proclamation, or prakas, covers working conditions, health and safety, and access to HIV services for sex workers, and will for the first time offer legal protection to employees in a sector that Mr. Sam Heng said is thriving.

“I estimate that every year most people go to entertainment establishments one or two times, including me,” Mr. Sam Heng said at the launch event Wednesday.

“Entertainment services,” he clarified to laughter from the audience, “include discotheques, clubs and restaurants.”

Chan Dyna, a representative of the National Entertainment Workers’ Network, said the new rules were long awaited.

“The government has finally recognized that entertainment workers are actually workers, like all others, and should be protected under [the] Labour Law,” Ms. Dyna said in a statement released by the government.

“Entertainment establishment owners have an obligation to take care of their workers and prevent key problems such as violence and sexual abuse,” she said.

But while the new regulations have now been put in writing, Mr. Sam Heng said adherence would initially be voluntary.

“We require employers as well as employees to [recognize] that they have an obligation to implement this, but the first step will be a voluntary education policy to make sure they understand it and encourage them to abide voluntarily,” he said on the sidelines of Wednesday’s event. Mr. Sam Heng said that in time, venue owners who ignored the regulations would be fined.

But policing new regulations in the largely informal sector of the economy will be no easy task.

According to Tourism Minister Thong Khon, there are 659 adult entertainment venues across the country employing more than 11,000 workers. Of those establishments, he said, more than one in four are unlicensed.

Neil Poetschka, a health adviser for Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, the overseas aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who carried out a study of the Cambodian sex trade in 2010, said poor and marginalized women in the sector often have no choice but to accept low wages and abusive work conditions.

“The lack of labour protections has meant that employers have been able to keep workers salaries as low as possible and by keeping them on short term contracts (or without any contract), have leveraged workers to accept dangerous and abusive working conditions,” he said by email.

“Workers are routinely subject to physical and verbal abuse, sexual harassment and compelled to drink alcohol to keep guests company at work” and in many cases resort to informal sex work to support themselves and their families, he added.

Mr. Poetschka said the success of the new prakas would be determined by the government and employers’ commitment to reform.

“I expect initially the changes will be slow, with venue owners and managers waiting for industry wide changes—to keep wages and conditions as low as possible in order to compete,” he said.

Richard Howard, senior specialist on HIV and AIDS at the International Labor Organization, which worked with the government to draft the prakas, said the new regulations would give entertainment workers a tool with which to negotiate with their bosses for better working conditions.

Mr. Howard said the greatest hurdle would be implementing the measures for women working in the unregulated sex trade.

“Of course, the challenges [in the sex trade] are much greater. That really is the Achilles’ heel of it all,” he said at Wednesday’s event.

“Those are the most vulnerable women and they really have the need for protection. We have to work toward that.”

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