Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order that shut down the country’s karaoke parlors last month has created a new class of workers—in name, at least.
Now “restaurant girls” perform the same functions as “karaoke girls” did, including providing sex, according to one prominent Phnom Penh NGO. But the establishments where they work—both mom-and-pop storefronts and large, multi-room venues—now advertise themselves as restaurants.
These restaurants still offer karaoke, said Kim Green, HIV/ AIDS coordinator for CARE International in Cambodia, which has been researching the effects of the ban. The owners are counting on a loophole that opened when Hun Sen clarified, in a Nov 28 radio broadcast, that families could still enjoy their personal karaoke machines.
No restaurant girls can be in the room while karaoke is being sung, and the door of the room must remain open.
If the customers want sex, they can go in the room with a girl and close the door—but no karaoke can be sung, according to Green. “If you want to sing karaoke, that’s fine, you just can’t have music and girls at the same time,” Green said.
Thus, Hun Sen’s attempt to crack down on vice—he has called karaoke parlors “a hell for poor women” and blamed them for destroying families and culture—has only sent it underground, Green said.
Members of the new class of “restaurant girls” are making slightly less money than karaoke girls did, according to CARE’s research. But at least they’re not unemployed, Green said. “[And] at least they haven’t been driven to working in brothels.”
Brothel prostitutes face a more miserable existence, greater social stigma and less social mobility, Green said.
Critics of Hun Sen’s ban had feared that thousands would be left jobless when an estimated 4,000 nightspots closed.