Dignified work: Tackling stigma in Cambodia’s beer industry

by 10th May 2016
A dispenser in a beer garden in Cambodia A dispenser in a beer garden in Cambodia

In Cambodia, employing women to promote and sell beer in entertainment venues has long been a common way to market beer brands (both regional and international). CARE International in Cambodia sought to address the stigma and safety issues facing women employed to sell beer by working with industry-wide stakeholders to change norms and practices, and achieve long-term impact at several levels.

In the early 2000s, with more consumers and beer brands entering the market, competition rose, and with it demand for women to serve a predominantly male clientele in outlets throughout the country.

Each night, young Cambodian women would wear branded – and typically revealing – uniforms and compete to sell different beers in venues including beer gardens, restaurants, soup shops, and karaoke clubs. These women were usually in their mid-20s, half of them were married, and around 60% of them had completed primary school education. More than 90% of women surveyed by the ILO in 2006 were supporting two or more dependents. Many were working without a base salary, reliant solely on commission. Others received a basic salary plus commission on sales made above the targets that were set.

An atmosphere of harassment and abuse

Beer promotion has always been stigmatised in Cambodian society. Women selling beer are viewed as available or promiscuous, which is contrary to the concept of the virtuous Khmer woman. Reported cases of verbal, physical and sexual harassment and abuse were rife within beer promotion.

In 20013, CARE began working with international beer brands, as well as local brewers, government departments, women’s groups, and those managing the informal outlets selling the beer, to examine what effects these workplace pressures were having on beer promoters working in the country’s capital city, Phnom Penh.

Even during CARE’s preliminary research exercises, reports were being made of women being raped in the toilets at venues where they worked; of having their underwear taken off while serving at tables; of being groped and being forced to fondle male customers’; having guns pulled on them; being told they deserve to die; and being followed home and threatened at the doors of their own homes by venue customers.

Harassment and abuse occurred within the venues, on the way home, or at the woman’s front door after being followed home. Such harassment and abuse contravened Cambodian law, as well as human rights, but was so widespread it was regarded by some of the women simply as an occupational hazard. When incidents happened, a beer promoter would be conflicted between the desire to protect herself and the pressure to sell beer and to keep her job. Many women were therefore reluctant to tackle problems with the customers, owners, or with the beer companies.

Additional precarious ‘governance’ conditions for beer promoters added to their vulnerability. For example, as subcontractors to the beer companies, the promoters did not get the status and benefits of an employee. Also, as they were hired directly by the beer companies, and placed at different venues, they were not considered staff of the outlets either. Thus, no one group took full responsibility for the health and safety of the beer promoters.

Starting with stigma

Whereas previous attempts to address the problems had taken a public health perspective, CARE  engaged directly with the brewers, tackling first and foremost the issues of workers’ rights. The crucial question was how women targeted for HIV prevention efforts were stigmatised within wider society.

CARE approached Heineken, which at the time was publicly acknowledging the issues faced by workers. The partnership began with the implementation of the Selling Beer Safely project: contributing to the improved health, general well-being and safety of beer promotion women in the workplace, through the provision of health education, policy changes and better understanding of their situation in the workplace.

In 2006, six major brewers in Cambodia (Cambodian Brewery, Cambrew, Asia Pacific Breweries, Heineken, Guinness and Carlsberg) joined together to establish the Beer Selling Industry in Cambodia (BSIC) in partnership with the Ministry of Labour, which prioritised establishing fixed salaries for beer promoters and addressing rights and safety issues.

With the support of CARE, BSIC also introduced a code of conduct for its beer company members, with clear guidelines for the protection of workers. These included conforming to basic salary guidelines; guaranteeing a decent style of uniform; providing transport to and from outlets; training workers on selling beer safely and life skills; and prohibiting workers from sitting and drinking with customers (a common practice that pressurises workers to also then drink beer with customers). It also included clear supervision structures and grievance procedures; a zero tolerance approach and policies towards harassment; and annual and independent monitoring of compliance and impact.

This raised awareness of the issues and established positive momentum within the sector. CARE then went on to create the Solidarity Association of Beer Promoters in Cambodia (SABC) – an independent, membership-based organisation encouraging long-term sustainability of the various activities supporting beer promoters. It was the SABC’s mission to “bring together volunteer beer promoters to share problems, encourage behaviour change and work together rather than in competition”.

Training for peer educators

Each year the SABC holds a three-day intensive training course for beer promoters that covers issues related to gender-based violence and legal rights, as well as facilitation skills for women to become peer educators, who can then go on to share this information in informal settings with other beer promoters. It trains around 200 peer educators a year, who go on to speak to over 3,000 other women, placing the stigma issue at the centre of their agenda. Ly Sreya is a peer educator who has been working as a beer promoter for about five years. She observes: “It is important for customers to know the value of women selling beer at night. They should know that just because a woman is working at night it does not mean they can be touched or harassed.”

There are now reports of change. One woman, Sovanna, who had been working as a beer promoter for over six years, described this incident an interview last year: “A customer had tried to fondle the woman’s breast and touch her inappropriately. The girl reacted with confidence, immediately calling security and contacting the outlet owner, who confronted the customer.” She added, “Before, [outlet owners] would worry about losing customers, but now they are not afraid to call the police if there is a problem. Instead of being angry, if a woman wishes to report harassment, they are now most likely to be annoyed that they were not told of any problems first.”

A reduction in sexual harassment

Independent research into the impacts of the industry’s code of conduct demonstrates increased awareness of workers’ benefits and rights, a drop in sexual harassment and an increase in the number of beer promoters addressing incidents of sexual harassment directly, indicating improved working conditions for beer promoters covered by the BSIC’s code of conduct, compared with those who are not.

Outlet owners have also reported commercial benefits in supporting the campaign. Saingheng runs a family business restaurant, and often encouraged his female staff to hide at the back while he warded off customers seeking sex. He joined the government-led Non-Violent Workplace Initiative, which provides him with posters to display information about harassment and hotlines to call. He reports that his notices have earned him the respect and support of customers: “Customers have told me they are very happy I have posters saying violence against women is not acceptable here.”

CARE is exploring how this industry-wide change can be replicated to address issues in other areas of women’s work, such as garment factories.

This blog was originally published as a case study in The Long View: Women Beyond Gender (2016, pp100-101) published by Forum for the Future

Tim Bishop

Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, my role involves supporting programme quality for CARE’s women’s economic empowerment work across the Asia Pacific region, providing strategy development and capacity building for teams, and convening and facilitating partnerships with the private sector. I also lead on various external affairs initiatives in the region.

I joined CARE International UK in September 2006 to set up their Private Sector Engagement Team, which initiated a range of global partnerships and sustainable development initiatives for CARE. In the time since, I have led several internal initiatives aimed at improving CARE’s programme quality and global connectivity. Most recently this has included the establishment of a new area of programming called Resilient Market Systems, analysing how to improve CARE’s women’s economic empowerment work within the context of humanitarian crises.

Prior to joining CARE, I spent 10 years in London, working in public, private and non-profit sector roles, largely specialising in corporate communications, fundraising and marketing functions.

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Email: bishop@careinternational.org