PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Yun Nit fled an abusive husband and a barren province to look for work in the capital, and at first it looked as if she had landed a decent job.

By Richard Sine, Boston Globe
Boston Globe 9/22/2002 pA8

Each evening, the 22-year-old dons a gold-trimmed red dress and a silk sash that reads ''Madiran Vin Rouge'' and goes to the Bird and Dragon, a breezy outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong River. There, she and other young women - who work on commission for local alcohol distributors - hover around customers and implore them to buy their brand of international drinks.

But after only a week, Yun Nit discovered the job's underside: While selling only one bottle of French wine, for which she earned $2, she has been groped, fondled, and propositioned for sex three times by customers. One man offered $50, about a month's salary for a Cambodian factory worker. Though her farming family in the western province of Battambang is deep in debt, Yun Nit has vowed to resist the advances.

''I don't want to bring a bad name to my province,'' she said, her eyes welling with tears. ''I took this job, but my mind is pure.''

Not all ''beer girls,'' as they are known here, can resist for long. An increasing number are selling sex in addition to drinks, and up to one-fifth are infected with HIV, recent government surveys show.

AIDS workers are focusing on the women's role in the country's epidemic and challenging the major beer and spirits companies to take responsibility for their employees' working conditions.

Thousands of women work as beer girls in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, where jobs are scarce for women. The ones who sell their bodies are paid better than prostitutes in brothels and have more discretion in choosing partners. But those freedoms have serious consequences: the surveys show that the women are less likely than brothel workers to ask partners to use condoms. And they are among the most vulnerable to contract HIV.

''The clients tend to develop more of a sweetheart relationship with these girls, and there is thought to be a relationship of trust,'' said Dr. Var Chivorn of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia, which counsels the women on the dangers of the sex trade.

Typically, the women do not work directly for the companies but for locally based distributors and exporters. The companies say they depend on the distributors to impose rules for the women's protection.

Our distributor ''provides these representatives with training and guidelines that call for professional dress and conduct; supervision each night; no drinking with customers; and transportation to the restaurants, and to their homes each night after work,'' Phil Davis, vice president and managing director of Asia for Anheuser-Busch International Inc., which employs Budweiser beer girls here, said in a statement.

''Anheuser-Busch is committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment for all of our employees,'' she wrote. ''We encourage our distributors to do the same.''

Some distributors say their rules prevent behavior leading to sex between their employees and customers. Tai Hong, general manager of Cambodia Breweries, which brews Tiger Beer in Cambodia for Singapore-based Asia-Pacific Breweries, said his company forbids the women from sitting with the clients or spending too much time with one client.''I don't want my girls to go to the other side of the business,'' he said.

In Cambodia, beer girls - whether they sell sex or not - carry a stigma of promiscuity. Most young woman here wear conservative clothing, go home early in the evening, and are rarely seen touching boyfriends or husbands in public. Beer girls work late, sometimes are required to wear miniskirts as uniforms, and are encouraged to flirt openly to keep the liquor flowing.

''I don't tell my family what I do,'' said Chum Phary, 24, who sells Carlsberg beer at the Bird and Dragon. ''I feel very ashamed.''

With base salaries running $20-$80 per month, they depend heavily on commissions - typically $2-$3 per case of beer sold. Refusing a client's advances can be tantamount to losing a sale, they say.

The commission-based sales tactics infuriate health workers. ''We have to make the multinationals realize that they are de facto prostituting young women to sell their beer,'' said Kim Green, AIDS program coordinator for Care International in Cambodia.

As Cambodia emerged as the most AIDS-prone country in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, the government launched a condom-use campaign that monitored and penalized brothels if women contracted HIV. But beer girls were overlooked.

Now, aid organizations are paying more attention to so-called indirect sex workers, such as karaoke employees, masseuses, and restaurant workers who also take part in the sex trade. Last year, the organizations began offering AIDS awareness programs to beer girls, and Chivorn estimates that two-thirds of the hundreds of them in Phnom Penh have spent at least an hour in the programs.

But the sessions are financed largely by US taxpayers, not the beer and liquor companies. Nor do they address working conditions, Green said.

Tai Hong of Cambodia Breweries said restaurant owners should be held responsible for the women's safety. But restaurant owners put the onus on the distributors.

Green contends that the companies are ultimately responsible.

She notes that in Cambodia's garment sector, international awareness of sweatshop conditions has spurred companies like the Gap to inspect and monitor factories that contract work here. The same could happen in the liquor business, she said.

''It's their beer,'' Green said. ''These companies have good policies to protect their own staff, and they could require that of their distributors.''