Multinational beer companies will be pressured in their home countries to take responsibility for ensuring the protection of women who work promoting their beer brands in Cambodia, international trade union officials said Saturday.
At a news conference in Phnom Penh, Sharan Burrow, president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, condemned beer companies for reaping millions of dollars in profits by exploiting Cambodian “beer girls.”
Burrow said that Cambodian women were “working to sell the products of wealthy multinationals with their bodies” and pledged to advocate for change upon her return to Europe.
Big-name beer brands such as Heineken, Carlsberg and Fosters were all mentioned at the news conference as major sellers in Cambodia that should expect new pressure from labor organizations.
“It is a story that is the ugly face of globalization,” Burrow told reporters. “We can’t stand by and watch some of the wealthiest multinationals in the world treat Cambodian women this way.”
Burrow came to Cambodia representing the Global Coalition for Women’s Rights/Workers’ Rights.
The trip was scheduled specifically to investigate the labor and human rights situation of Cambodia’s beer promotion workers, and included meetings with senior officials from the ministries of Labor, Women’s Affairs and Commerce as well as the International Labor Organization, human rights groups and the beer promotion girls themselves.
Chan Phalla, who sells Singapore’s Tiger beer brand, told the news conference how customers had cursed and beaten her and even forced her at gunpoint to drink and perform sex acts.
“I don’t complain to the authorities. I told the shop owners, but they took no action,” she said of her employers in Cambodia.
“I had training in a workshop about union organizing, but although I had knowledge to share with other girls, they didn’t want to follow me because they are afraid,” she added. Burrow alleged that attempts to unionize beer promotion women had been frustrated by threats and even dismissals in retribution for even talking with union officials, though she did not name the companies involved.
Inez McCormack, former president of the Irish Congress of Free Trade Unions and a senior adviser to the Global Coalition, said that although beer promotion workers in other countries may face problems, “the message coming to us at the moment is that Cambodia is the worst situation.”
McCormack and Burrow called for a comprehensive work contract for beer promoters including fair wages rather than commission work, set hours with overtime, sick and maternity leave, health care and secure transport to and from their place of work.
They also called for improvements to Cambodia’s labor law and better criminal law enforcement.
However, Burrow said her initial request to international beer companies, asking them to ensure more dignified styles of uniforms for female promoters, suggested the process would be an uphill battle.
“I asked the beer companies one simple question: Would they work with the women to design uniforms they felt were comfortable and dignified, and they said ‘No, we have to sell beer,’” she said.
Between February and April there were four unrelated cases of beer promotion workers being shot by military and police customers in Phnom Penh alone, and advocates say that incidents of a less violent nature than shootings go largely unreported.
“If Western companies come in here to make money, they can expect Western unions to come in and ask how money is being made,” McCormack said.
“They are making profits [in Cambodia] they probably could not in the West, because they would have to behave with decency to workers,” she said.