Home > Local News > Cambodia: A better life for the beer girls

Cambodia: A better life for the beer girls

Beer girl serving in a beer garden (Photo: The Phnom Penh Post)
Every night, in one of Cambodia’s
many open air restaurants, beer girls walk between tables of customers,
topping up glasses and adding the huge chunks of ice Cambodians insist
is dropped in their beer.
In their short red dresses,
decorated with the logo of the brand they sell, the girls are easy to
pick out in the near-darkness of the open-air restaurants, and many are
invited to sit at the tables and talk. The chat may be over-familiar
but it is, on the whole, respectful.
Treatment of beer promotion
girls in Cambodia has markedly improved in recent years as a result of
a successful partnership between the government, local non-government
organisations, funded in part by the UN, and The Beer Selling Industry
Cambodia, which represents Heineken and Carlsberg among others.

Beer girls are not sex workers,
but their youth and line of work made them a regular target for
unwanted advances, even abuse. The successful co-operation between
rights groups and companies to provide training and other initiatives
such as a harassment reporting hotline, have had a pronounced effect on
the girls’ working lives.
Those involved hope the model
of businesses taking advice from rights groups and improving the
protection of their workers will be replicated.
At a time when cracks in the
relationship between Cambodia’s government and the international
development community working in the country are frequently in the
local news, such schemes are an effective way to show that public and
private sector aims can be compatible.
There are already several
projects underway. LG Electronics recently announced a three-year
partnership to support work by the UN World Food Programme in Cambodia
to aid road links between markets and schools, and the World Health
Organisation is supporting its national counterpart in working with the
private sector to make anti-malarial drugs affordable to all
Cambodians.
Private sector partnerships are
an essential element of development in Cambodia, declares MP Joseph,
chief technical advisor for the International Labour Organization.
“They may be more difficult to establish and sustain in the early
stages of development and growth of a country. But very soon, as is
happening in Cambodia, development strategies need to bring in the
private sector.”
Such strategies have been
employed to work with foreign and local business owners in Cambodia as
part of the ILO “better factories” campaign to improve working
conditions for garment factory workers.
Relationships have also been
forged with local companies in a scheme to help end child labour.
Private micro-finance institutions such as Amret have been approached
to help educate families in how they can replace income lost when a
child returns to school.
In return, Mr Chea Phalarim,
general manager at Amret, said working with the ILO had increased the
organisation’s client base, bringing it into contact with eligible
customers in remote locations. The benefits, he says, work both ways.
Aid remains crucial to
Cambodia’s economy. Despite the global economic downturn and criticism
from human rights groups, aid provision is expected to increase from
$990m in 2009 to $1.1bn this year.
But foreign direct investment
is also on the rise. Chinese and Korean investors are back after a
hiatus caused by the global financial downturn, and are ready to fund
large projects without governance strings attached.
In May 2010, at the
inaugaration of the Cambodia-China Prek Kdam Friendship Bridge, funded
largely by a loan from China, the Cambodian prime minister thanked the
Chinese for lending money “without setting complicated conditions” – an
implied dig at the requirements made by aid donors.
In 2008 China became the
largest foreign investor in Cambodia, with more than $8bn invested, and
bilateral trade between the two countries rose by more than a third in
this first half of 2010 compared to the previous year.
Government tetchiness towards
the development community, meanwhile, has been palpable. Prime minister
Hun Sen, who has held power since 1993, has previously dismissed UN
rights staff as nothing more than long term tourists.
This year he has asked the UN
to limit the work done by the international tribunal trying former
members of the Khmer Rouge regime and accused Christophe Peschoux, the
country director of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights, of being a spokesperson for the opposition party. In March,
Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong criticised UN country head
Douglas Broderick after he asked for more time to review a new
anti-corruption law.
The situation for UN staff
working in Cambodia is very different to that of the 1990s, when
Security Council members expressed fear for the lives of staff. The
country is stable, peaceful, and for many a pleasant place to live.
Those working in the development sector are expected to be sensitive to
the politics of their work and all UN staff receive an orientation
session to provide them with an overview of Cambodia.
Nevertheless public attacks on
work by certain agencies can make working lives difficult. One former
staff member of the international tribunal said government
disapprobation didn’t help the morale of staff already engaged in a
difficult job.
Previous attacks on NGOs, and
the expulsion of some organisations from the country, have demanded
caution and diplomacy from international development organisations.
UN agencies in the country play
down the friction, but few staff members would allow themselves to be
quoted on the topic. Representatives say that open door policies are
employed and that meetings are held when situations arise that might
concern staff.
Outside the UN Human Rights
office in Phnom Penh, focus of multiple threats of closure from the
government, a group of Buddhist monks sits in the shade, waiting to
collect information to take back to their pagodas. Inside, in an office
stacked with reports, deputy country representative James Heenan
insists that work continues as normal.
“Human rights work regularly
involves the burden of working in difficult environments and being
subject to pressure from many quarters. It’s part of the job.”
 
Financial Time

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