|‘Beer girl’ is a dangerous profession
‘Beer girls’ sell beer in Cambodia in the bar trade and are confronted there with sexual violence. Heineken is not intending to stop using beer girls.
By our editors Frits Baltesen and Elske Schouten
Rotterdam, 6 oct
You don’t order a beer at the bar in Cambodia. “If you go to a restaurant in Cambodia, at least 15 women from different beer brands come and stand near your table to draw your attention. Some whisper in your ear, or touch you”, says Ian Lubek, a Canadian professor who does research into the phenomenon of ‘beer girls’.
When a visitor has finally chosen a brand, the girl comes and sits at the table and fills the glasses. Beer girl is a dangerous profession. They frequently get confronted with violence, and are forced into sexual contact.
All large breweries, such as Heineken, Carlsberg and Inbev (Dommelsch, Hoegaarden) use beer girls in Cambodia. The Association of Investors for Sustainable Development (VBDO) called for the Dutch brewery Heineken to improve the situation of the girls at the shareholders meeting in April this year. Heineken has been saying since 2002 to do something about it. But according to Lubek, who is associated with the University of Guelph in Canada, nothing much has changed.
This weekend Lubek will publish the results of a questionnaire he undertook in August among 42 beer girls in Siem Reap. The results show that the dress in which the women work has become less salacious and that they are taken home by bus by some restaurants. But the problems such as alcohol misuse, prostitution and aids infection have barely been reduced.
“The matter is complex”, says the head of the department of health matters of Heineken, Katinka van Cranenburgh. “If we withdraw, our competitors will take our place immediately. Nobody is helped by that”.
4000 to 5000 beer girls work in Cambodia. Lubek tells that the women feel forced to drink too, because they are afraid that they otherwise lack clients. Lubek’s questionnaire shows that almost three quarters of the women drink beer in this way for 27 days of the month, on average 1.4 litres per night.
A large majority of the beer girls is exposed to threat, violence, and (sexual) assault, as was already evident in 2005 from research by the helping organisation CARE. 40 percent of those interviewed had dealt with rape or other forced sexual acts. It also was shown from this research that almost all women used excessive alchol.
The beer girls earn approximately 60 dollar (43 euro) per night, according Lubek half of what is required to earn a living. That is why an estimated one third to half of them engage in paid sexual activity, two or three times per month. Research between 1997 and 2003 concluded that 20 percent of beer girls has contracted the aids virus. According to Lubek that figure has dropped somewhat by now.
Heineken has no figures about the percentage of contracting the hiv virus, but says that of the category singers, dancers and beer girls, 6 percent has contracted the virus that can lead to aids. The company thinks that there is no relationship between the phenomenon of beer girl and the number of aids cases among them.
Van Cranenburgh asserts that it is easy from a Western chair to judge the beer girls. “The relationships between men and women there are so schewed” says van Cranenburgh. “Women do not get respect. They are not worth the same as men. The country has a culture of violence. This means physical as well as sexual violence”.
According to Heineken the situation will not be helped by stopping using beer girls. “Breweries that are less conscientious will jump in” thinks Van Cranenburgh. The fact that the most important breweries have signed a code of conduct last year has altered the situation very little.
Heineken will this year educate the beer girls on hygiene and use of condoms. The brewer has also forbidden them to engage in sexual contact with frequenters of the entertainment trade, and has increased salaries to approximately the level of a textile worker, the most common occupation in Cambodia.
Heineken has also advised the girls to have themselves tested regularly for hiv. The company does not pay for medical treatment, because the government supplies this free of charge. Researcher Lubek poses however that the threshold for participation in government programmes is high, and that therefore many women miss the boat.
Heineken does not mention how much turnover is in Cambodia. Approximately 120 beer girls work directly for the Heineken brand, around 580 girls work for companies where Heineken owns a stake of the shares. Tiger Beer is the most wellknown of these brands. According to Lubek, however, 700 girls sell Heineken beer and approximately the same number of ‘promoters’ sell the Tiger lager. According to him each beer girl sells 15000 to 42000 dollars’ worth of beer.
Director Giuseppe van der Helm of the Association of Investors for Sustainable Development (VBDO) says that he will certainly return to the question during next year’s shareholders meeting. “We ask in a friendly way the first time. But if nothing happens after that, we become a little less friendly”.
Van der Helm understands for Heineken’s position that the company cannot solve the problem of the beer girls as the only brewery, but contends that Heineken has to take the lead. For example, by increasing the salary of the women further, which will make them less vulnerable. “I think that Heineken could really make a little more effort”.