Beers and Karaoke

Throughout Cambodia, thousands of women, most of them under the age of 25, work in beer gardens, karaoke bars and private parties promoting beer and other alcoholic beverages. Beer promoters, or “beer girls” as many Cambodians call them, are employed by the breweries themselves or by distributers and go from customer to customer, the majority of whom are Cambodian, promoting the brand of beer that they work for on a nightly basis.  

The sector is defined by low wages, poor working conditions, frequent sexual harassment, alcohol-related health problems and high rates of HIV transmission. In 2006, several of the beer companies sponsoring these places, including brands such as Tiger and Heineken, formed the Beer Selling Industry Cambodia (BSIC) alliance, which subsequently established fixed salaries for the beer promoters working for them. However, with these fixed salaries averaging at just USD $100 a month, many beer promoters are unable to cover their cost of living. 

Because of insufficient wages, incentives to earn additional income, such as sitting and drinking with customers in expectation of tips, are high despite carrying disastrous consequences. A study conducted in 2010 by Ian Lubek, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada, found that beer promoters can consume an average of 1.5 liters of beer per night for up to 27 nights a month. Such high levels of alcohol consumption carry significant health consequences, as well as make the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment. In fact, it is one of the jobs with the highest risk in Cambodia, with high rates of transmission of HIV among girls in the past decade (condom use with regular clients usually is low). According to a SOMO report, out of a rotating annual workforce of 250 beer sellers, more than 80 are listed as having died between 2004 and 2010 in Siem Reap. Moreover, at an average age of 25, 20% of the non-BSIC workers said that they did not know that HIV was transmitted by sex. 

"I am married and I have one son, but I like to have two or three very special young girls. In Cambodia, it is normal to come to these places. Many foreigners do not understand but in this country it is the man who commands, it has always been so as it will be. I lost my virginity in one of the beer gardens when I was 16 and since then I come every week to see my favorite girls. I know they like me very much. Married women are not as pretty as prostitutes”, says a regular Cambodian customer of one of the beer gardens on Road 90 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Text by Juliette Rousselot

Photos: ©Omar Havana / All Rights are Reserved