Phnom Penh Post, July 19 - Aug 1, 2002. vol. 11, num. 14

The cost of living: Research suggests more beer girls are being forced by poverty to provide clients with sex. But figures showing that one in five are HIV positive raise the question of responsibility.

by Bill Bainbridge and Lon Nara

To sit down at any one of hundreds of Phnom Penh restaurants is to immed-iately be swamped by young women in tight-fitting outfits bearing the logos of local and international brewers.

Global brand names such as Carlsberg, Stella Artois, Fosters, Heineken, Beck's, Tiger, San Miguel and others use beer promoters to push their product in Cambodia. The names of local and international corporate brands follow you as you take your seat.

"Heineken, Heineken," pleads one girl in her green and white dress as she tries to have her brand chosen over the others. Drink enough Heineken and she'll earn a little extra commission. For most companies that is an extra $2 to $3 per carton.

But for increasing numbers of "beer girls", selling sex is where much of their money is made.

"It's becoming more common for beer girls to sell sex," says Var Chivorn, associate executive director of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), which works with beer girls. "Some girls come to the job with that expectation in mind."

The most recent Behavioral Sentinel Survey produced by the National Center for HIV/AIDS (NCHADS) found that Cambodian men are going to fewer brothel-based direct sex workers.

At the same time however, more beer promoters are selling sex every year, up from 12.8 percent in 1997 to 30.4 percent in 2001. Other estimates are higher: one survey of 379 beer girls conducted in 2000 found 40 percent exchange sex for money or gifts and in some provinces the BSS found that rate was 60 percent.

"It's poverty," says Chivorn explaining the reason so many girls have moved into sex work. "They need to send money back to their families and their income is not enough. They have no choice but to sell sex."

Along with any indirect sex work in Cambodia go the inherent twin risks of violence and HIV/AIDS. But at a time when so called "corporate responsibility" is in the public eye, what responsibility do multinational corporations take for the culture of sex work that engulfs their product marketing in Cambodia?

"We're certainly comfortable with the concept of using promotional staff," says Jo Ford of Fosters Brewing International. "That's common practice to sell a range of products throughout Asia - not just beer."

Like other international brewers, Fosters contracts its local distribution to a Cambodia-based firm. Fosters' Asian operation runs at a loss and, says Ford, is a "pretty small time distributor in Cambodia".

"We set guidelines and parameters, then use local importers and distributors. That's the model we use all over the world," she says. "We set standards for marketing and promotion and the local distributor implements them. We take health and safety very seriously.

"There is a training program for staff that covers how to handle difficult customers, awareness of HIV/AIDS, what to do if they are approached for sex and so on." Critics don't believe that training programs are enough.

"That doesn't give them security or protection," says Rosanna Barbero of Oxfam Hong Kong.

In May last year the Khmer HIV NGO Alliance (KHANA) published an investigation into beer and karaoke girls. Entertainment Workers and HIV/AIDS was based on interviews with workers and clients. It paints a picture of women walking a tightrope of sexual availability.

"Workers are encouraged, if not obliged, to flirt and consume alcohol and sometimes drugs with their customers, allow customers to touch and fondle their bodies and to tolerate harassment and aggressive behavior from customers," the report says.

Restaurant owners will often coerce women into drinking with customers in order to keep the beer flowing, it noted, while some beer girls told researchers they had lost their jobs by angering clients when they refused sex.

"Achieving high levels of customer satisfaction was their primary duty," the report states. "One ex-beer promoter supervisor said that during their training women are told to remember to 'treat the customer as the king and [remember] that the customer employs you'."

All over Phnom Penh the girls can be seen being plied with beer and groped by their male clients. It is clear that men use the commission as leverage.

"If I let them touch me, then they say that the beer tastes very good," says one Foster's girl. Adds another: "If I say I won't go with them they won't drink my beer."

Twenty-year-old Neary has been a beer girl for just three months. She says her husband now wants her to find a new job.

"He cannot contain his anger when I tell him about the men touching me. Normally they abuse me verbally or they kiss and embrace me in front of the other customers," she says. "I make between $50 and $80 a month. Sometimes the customer is kind and gives me extra money if I sit with them."

Others customers, says Neary, are more prone to using physical violence.

"One man threatened me with a gun. After drinking for an hour he showed me the gun in his belt and said, 'If you don't sleep with me I'll shoot you dead'."

Neary escaped unharmed, but around half a dozen beer girls the Post interviewed were familiar with stories of violence and occasionally rape. But whether or not they decide to sell sex, many conceal their job from their families due to the stigma.

"I told my family I work for a Chinese factory in Phnom Penh," says Ly, a Foster's beer girl in a large restaurant across the Japanese Bridge. Like many, Ly moved to Phnom Penh from the provinces in search of a better income.

She says that by working two shifts a day she can earn $120 a month. However she has no desire to sell sex or to continue as a beer girl in the long term.

Ly cuts a demure figure in her knee length skirt, but other companies do not offer the option of less revealing clothing. Some girls find the outfits quite confronting, says Nith Sopha of FHI/Impact, an NGO which works to prevent HIV in high risk groups.

When one girl expressed embarrassment at her uniform, Sopha recalls, "the company said, 'If you're shy then don't work here'."

The beer girls pay a deposit of between $5-$10 for their uniform. In traditional Cambodia, short skirts and tight-fitting outfits are seen as inappropriate for virtuous women. The outfits beer girls must wear, on the other hand, immediately sexualize them in the eyes of their customers.

Heineken dresses its staff in tight-fitting, shiny tennis style dresses. For other companies the mini-skirt is part of the uniform in a country where ankle length skirts are viewed as appropriate.

"Most of the customers look down on us, but not the ones with a good heart," says one Heineken girl who fled to Phnom Penh ten years ago when her parents tried to force her to marry.

Nith Sopha says family conflict and poverty drive women to take up low status employment as beer girls.

"Most come from families where there have been upheavals and instability such as parental divorce, abandonment by husbands, or rape," she says. "Others are sold as virgins to an older man for around $400, then sold to a brothel a few days later."

The girls then drift between direct and indirect sex work.

Republished with permission of PPP, Mr. Michael Hayes (editor). Subscriptions to the PPP are available.
The rate for print subscriptions in Cambodia is $28.00 per year
The international print subscription's rate is US $120.00 per
The print subscription's fee sent to Thailand is 4,000 Baht per
The electronic subscription's fee is $50.00 per year.
For information about Cambodia check out