AIDS IN ASIA: The Continent's Growing Crisis/WORKERS AT RISK/Cambodian 'beer girls' add to HIV epidemic -- activists say brewers must get involved.

Richard Sine, Chronicle Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- After Yun Nit fled an abusive husband and a barren province to look for a job in the capital, it seemed at first that she had landed a decent job.

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, an outdoor eatery overlooking the Mekong River. There, she joins a phalanx of other young women who greet customers and implore them to buy a dizzying variety of international beers, wines and liquors.

But after only a week, Yun Nit discovered the job's underside: While selling only one bottle of expensive French wine, for which she earned $2, she had been groped, fondled and propositioned for sex three times. One man offered $50, about a month's salary for a Cambodian factory worker.

Although her farming family in the western province of Battambang is deep in debt, Yun Nit has vowed to refuse the advances. "I don't want to bring a bad name to my province," she said. "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 along with beer, and as many as one-fifth are infected with HIV, recent government surveys show.

"The customers ask me to drink, so I drink," said Ly Sokunthea, who sells a Belgian beer called Stella Artois. "If I am very drunk, they can ask me to go anywhere. Sometimes they put drugs in the beer, so I go."

AIDS workers have started to focus on the beer girls' role in the epidemic and are challenging the major beer and spirits companies to take responsibility for their employees' working conditions.

Thousands of beer girls ply their trade in Cambodia, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, where jobs are scarce for women. In the vast world of Cambodian sex workers, experts say, beer girls are royalty. They earn more than they would in brothels and have more discretion in choosing their partners.

But those freedoms make beer girls among the most vulnerable to HIV. Surveys show they are less likely than brothel workers to ask partners to wear condoms.

"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.

The government's high-profile rule demanding 100 percent condom usage for brothel workers has not reached beer parlors. As a result, aid organizations are paying more attention to so-called indirect sex workers, such as karaoke employees and masseuses, who also take part in the sex trade. Last year, the groups began offering AIDS awareness programs to beer girls, and Var Chivorn estimates that two-thirds of beer girls in Phnom Penh have spent at least an hour in the programs.

Typically, the women do not work directly for beer companies but for locally based distributors. The companies say they depend on 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," said Phil Davis, vice president and managing director for Asia for Anheuser-Busch International, which employes Budweiser beer girls.

Tai Hong, general manager of Cambodia Breweries, which brews Tiger Beer in Cambodia for Asia-Pacific Breweries in Singapore, said his company forbids the women from spending too much time with one client.

But with base salaries as low as $20 to $80 a month, the women depend heavily on commissions -- typically $2 to $3 per case of beer sold. Refusing a client's advances can be tantamount to losing a sale, they say. "If you refuse them, next time when they come, they no longer drink Foster's," said Sim Rattana, a 16-year-old who sells Australia's Foster beer. Her $20 base salary is less than half the minimum wage for a factory worker.

"The girls have to do something to convince the client to buy," said Nith Sopha, a health officer for the AIDS nonprofit organization, Family Health International. "The companies are acting with one eye open and the other eye closed."

The commission-based sales tactics infuriate most AIDS 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 officer for Care International in Cambodia.