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Monday, May 24, 2010

Foreign Brewers Accused of Exploitation in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH — Enjoying an after-work beer is common enough in Cambodia, for men at least. In hundreds of beer gardens, female beer promoters in corporate uniforms bearing the names of international or local brands try to entice them to buy their beer.

But working as a beer promoter is frowned upon socially. Sharon Wilkinson, who heads Care International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with the women, says they are typically viewed as little more than sex workers.

Wilkinson says beer gardens are an environment where "sexual harassment including physical abuse is high."

Hers is a point of view that resonates with researchers from Canada's University of Guelph.

In a recent report, they conclude that brewers, including the world's largest beer firms, are exploiting women by allowing local distributors to underpay them.

A key finding was that 57 per cent of 122 beer promoters surveyed last year in Siem Reap in north-western Cambodia were compelled to engage in sex work to supplement their average monthly incomes of 81 dollars.

Professor Ian Lubek, who led the research, says wages for the country's 4,000 beer promoters must double to reduce the risk of HIV infection.

"A living wage is required," he says, explaining salaries would need to rise to 200 dollars monthly. "Beer sellers, no matter what brand, have never received a living wage in Cambodia."

Lubek says the women support three to four people each and describes workplace conditions as "toxic" with sexual harassment and excessive drinking common.

For their part, the world's four biggest brewers reject the claim that low wages force some beer promoters to engage in sex work.

The brewers - Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, London's SAB-Miller PLC, Dutch firm Heineken NV and Danish brewer Carlsberg A/S - together sell half the world's beer and enjoy the lion's share of the Cambodian market.

They say beer promoters, who they stress are employed by distributors and not the brewers, receive adequate wages.

The brewers have been criticized before and in 2006 set up an association to improve conditions. The objectives of the Beer Selling Industry of Cambodia include ensuring women have work contracts, receive proper training and have clear grievance procedures.

Carlsberg spokeswoman Berky Kong says an association survey showed average monthly incomes, including commission, were 110 dollars.

"The pay we are offering is actually very good money for them, considering their actual working hours per day are four to six hours," Kong said of Carlsberg's 635 beer promoters. Garment workers, by contrast, receive around 50 dollars a month for longer hours, she said.

Kong says beer promoters are "normally not the only person bringing income to the family" but declined to say how many of Carlsberg's promoters are single women and, therefore, more likely to be in such a position.

Association rules also prohibit beer promoters from drinking alcohol at work although Lubek found 99 per cent still drink daily and most to excess, citing pressure from customers. That adds to the risk of contracting HIV, he said.

Beer promoters have long been among those most at risk of contracting HIV in Cambodia. The government's National Aids Authority says 0.9 per cent of the adult population is HIV-positive. Although the rate among beer promoters remains unknown, rates of 20 per cent have been cited by NGOs.

Cambodia is undergoing a shift in sexual behaviour since a 2008 law banned prostitution. Organizations such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS are worried that fewer measures could be taken to combat the risks as sex work moves from brothels into beer gardens and karaoke parlours.

Lubek's report states that 80 beer promoters of 900 interviewed in the past seven years in Siem Reap have since died. He says he believes HIV-related infections are the reason although a lack of death certificates means their causes of death remain unknown.

"But that so many women should die so young - average age 25 years - is startling," he says.

The brewers say providing anti-retrovirals - another demand of Lubek's report - is unsuitable. Heineken's press officer Jeroen Breuer says the firm leaves that to the health service.

"What Heineken does is focus on providing information and education," Breuer says.

It is a position with which Care International agrees, not least since HIV-positive Cambodians remain stigmatized. Besides that, relying on an employer for life-saving medication might prevent women from moving jobs.

"If we're really going to make the change, we have to change the behaviour of the drinking man," Wilkinson says. "That's where the change comes, and that's what we're working on."

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