In the nine years that Meas has been selling beer for a living, she has seen a little of everything.
A friend was slapped twice by a male customer because she refused to have sex with him, and her own salary has dropped by almost half in the last few years because the 28-year-old used to be “so beautiful and younger” and was able to sell more beer.
Being harassed, Meas said, is a way of life for her and her friends, all of whom work as “beer girls.”
“Almost 90 percent of clients drinking beer, they always harass beer girls,” she said. “Sometimes we have to…ignore when they touch our hands or body because some clients are very bad.”
The women have little recourse when clients misbehave because the clients, in turn, complain about them to the beer garden or restaurant owner and say they aren’t good servers.
And some girls give in to the pressure to have sex with clients for money or expensive gifts in order to supplement their meager monthly incomes, Meas said.
“But if they were questioned on this matter, they rarely speak out because it affects their honor,” she said.
Clients invariably view Meas and her coworkers as sexually available, even though the women, themselves do not.
But the US-based NGO Care International is looking to change that.
From the style and cut of their uniforms to the language used to describe them, Care International wants to change the way the public view “beer girls.”
With longer hems, less-revealing necklines and more respectful terminology, the organization hopes to move toward a larger goal: Eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a recent summit on “beer promotion women” held in Phnom Penh.
“It’s about sensitizing all stakeholders,” said Louise Bury, project adviser for Care’s Private Sector Project.
The summit brought together beer promotion women, NGO workers, government officials, and representatives from beer companies and distributors to discuss ways to make beer gardens, restaurants and karaoke bars safer places for women to work.
Care estimates that there are more than 4,000 beer girls in Cambodia and that harassment “is so widespread it is almost regarded by the women as an occupational hazard,” according to a Care statement.
Regional and international beer companies employ the women, who range in age from 15 to 39, to hang out in bars and restaurants trying to persuade customers to buy their brand of beer.
According to a Care survey, 38 percent of the women work for a monthly salary, with a bonus for outperforming their sales quotas, while 62 percent work only on commission based on how many cases of beer they sell.
The harassment the women face includes rude language, unwanted sexual touching, physical abuse, threats and coerced sexual acts, according to Care documents.
In pushing for a “zero tolerance” policy on harassment, Care wants society to see beer girls not as sexual objects but as decent women—a quarter of them are married—trying to make an honest living.
“Why am I not treated the same as the seller in the market?” said a beer promoter quoted anonymously on a Care documentary. “I would like to ask all the male customers to respect women.”
Care officials acknowledge what they’re up against in Cambodia: Trying to conduct a cultural makeover of “beer girls,” including the widespread view that beer promoters are “indirect sex workers” who will sell sex along with their beer.
Bury, however, argues that the perception of beer girls does not mirror reality.
The majority of beer promoters don’t sell sex, she said, casting doubt on an oft-quoted government survey that found that 37 percent of beer promoters said they have had sex in exchange for money or gifts.
The survey has been used throughout the government to justify calling beer promoters “indirect sex workers.”
But Care asserts that under that definition, almost all women could be called “indirect sex workers” because almost all women, at some point, have exchanged sex for material goods, said several Care employees.
Care is also working to eliminate the usage of a Cambodian-French language term for beer girls, srey lanceur [promotion girl], that is a double entendre indicating that the women sell their bodies.
Bury said the Ministry of Labor is already casting about for a new way to refer to the women.
“This term is stigmatizing the most vulnerable women in the society,” said Care Country Director Sharon Wilkinson during a recent interview.
Care and several beer companies and distributors have already taken what they consider to be the first steps toward improving working conditions for beer promoters.
Heineken International, Asian Pacific Breweries, Cambodia Breweries Ltd and Attwood Import and Export Co Ltd have each instituted Care’s Selling Beer Safely project.
The project offers a three-day life skills training program for new beer promotion recruits, with information about alcohol and responsible drinking and how to effectively deal with aggressive customers.
The sellers and distributors involved in the project represent up to about 20 percent—some 800—of the estimated 4,000 beer promoters in Cambodia.
In acknowledging the relatively low buy-in so far from private industry, Wilkinson said, “There is work still to be done.”
So far, only Heineken has worked on offering less-revealing uniforms, but Care officials hope that others will follow suit, accepting input from the beer promoters themselves on what they would feel most comfortable wearing while at work.
Care and others also hope the private sector will consider a beer industry trade group similar to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia.
Such a group could encourage the adoption of an industry-wide code of conduct for promoters and outlet owners, according to Care.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)