Phnom Penh Post, Issue 12/07, March 28 - April 10, 2003

'Ethical beer' campaign to target Western drinkers

By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson


In a bid to improve the lives of beer girls, a Canadian university professor has announced he will launch an online campaign to discourage consumers from buying beer brands which exploit their sales staff in Cambodia.

Ian Lubek, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, has taken his cue from the success of fair-trade coffee and chocolate brands in the West.

Lubek said he would launch a website, called ethicalbeer.com, later this year to highlight the plight of Cambodia's often-exploited beer girls. Low wages force many into informal sex work, and as a result they have one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country.

He is hopeful his new approach will be more successful than previous attempts to deal directly with the major brewers. Among the international beers marketed here are Heineken, Fosters, Becks and Stella Artois.

"We're a little disappointed with the direct approach," he said. "One transnational company just plays telephone tag and doesn't phone you back. Another major Dutch beer [has an] excellent policy for its Western workers, but does not consider the beer girls to fall under this policy."

The website will divide the beer companies between those which have an ethical policy towards the saleswomen who sell their product, and those which do not. Visitors to the site will be encouraged to boycott those which fall short.

Beer girls are a common sight in hundreds of restaurants across Cambodia. They sport branded uniforms of either international or local beers, and their task is to sell as much of their brand as possible. The international brewers use local distributors to market their product here, which they say absolves them from any responsibility for their welfare.But the wages paid, usually around $45 a month plus a small sum for every case of beer sold, are too low to survive. That compels many beer girls to engage in sex work with customers who drink their product, a practice that carries significant risks. Studies carried out by the National Center for HIV/AIDS have shown that one-fifth of them are infected with the HIV virus.

Prang Chanthy, project officer at Family Health International/Impact, said many of the women also suffered violence at the hands of the customers, and found it impossible to escape the cycle of indirect sex work.

"In the places selling beer they have many clients who come to buy sex," she said. "After they get ill from HIV/AIDS, they are afraid to go home because their family will lose face, so they die in a hospital in Phnom Penh."

Lubek, who is funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, said brewers should take more responsibility for the safety of their workers. As well as paying higher salaries, he wants the women to receive standard company health care packages.

But the international brewers have shown little sympathy, Lubek said. They classify the selling as 'promotional activities', which precludes the beer girls from receiving standard health packages and benefits.

That is despite the fact that they work regular hours and pick up a paycheck every month.

"If you bring western corporations into a developing county and take money out of that country and don't apply the same standards, that is exploitative," Lubek said. "If 20 percent [of the workforce] are HIV positive, that is downright irresponsible."

Heineken International representative, Sietze Montijn, told the Post by email that "members of the promotional team are not employed by Heineken" and consequently did not qualify for company benefits. On the subject of salaries, said Montijn, "wages paid are well in line with the local customs".

Becks said it "strongly condemned" combining beer promotion with prostitution, and had informed its partner in Cambodia of "the problem".

"We regularly stress that the exclusive task of promotional girls is to advertize our brand," the company stated in a press release. However it gave no indication of steps taken to assist the beer girls.

Lubek said his main criteria for ethical status would be a doubling of salaries, a step which should eradicate most of the indirect sex work, and the inclusion of the women in the company's health care policies.

Initially the site will be aimed at students attending his university, but his hope is that the campaign will take off around the world.

"Every time I talk about this, a lot of people get furious about corporate responsibility," he said. "You find more and more consumers who are asking for fair trade, and that puts pressure on the company. I'll say as soon as they start paying their workers five dollars a day and providing health care, they will move to the ethical list."


Phnom Penh Post, Issue 12/07, March 28 - April 10, 2003 Michael Hayes, 2003. Republished with permission of PPP, Mr. Michael Hayes (editor).

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