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Unions Crucial to Protecting Entertainment Workers in Cambodia21 October 2011
ILO and Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA’s new report says supporting unions is key to protecting vulnerable workers in Cambodia from HIV.
In Phnom Penh earlier this week, participants from government, industry, unions and civil society heard that the key to protecting vulnerable workers from HIV is treating HIV vulnerabilities as an occupational health and safety issue and strengthening the role of unions in negotiating with employers around better working conditions.
Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA has previously written about the draft report , but this event allowed an opportunity to formally launch the Khmer and English versions of the report, along with an update of conditions from trade unions, government and employers.
Funded by the International Labour Organisation, the report looked at the effect of the global financial crisis on sex work. Since 2008, around 70,000 women have been fired from garment factories, many of whom then move into direct sex work and other entertainment worker roles, such as beer promotion women and karaoke attendants.
The report recomends that the HIV vulnerabilities that entertainment workers, especially beer promotion women, face are broader workplace safety and dignity issues. For example, salaries in the sector are set at only $50 a month, which means that the only way for workers to earn a living wage is from tips and commissions. This usually means sitting and drinking heavily with clients, putting them at risk of sexual violence. Low wages also push women into casual sex work.
The group heard that whilst there are many health interventions for sex workers and entertainment workers, many of these services are struggling with the collapse of brothel based work, a result of recent law changes, and the new reality of street based and beer garden/karaoke bar based sex work. Even worse, many of these services, funded by foreign NGOs, inhibit the growth of trade unions to challenge the underlying problems.
Industry needs to do more to protect their workers, which includes venue owners and beer promotion companies. But many companies, such as Cambrew, half owned by giant multinational beverage company, Carlsberg, are actively undermining unions to make workers more insecure and more vulnerable.
Two entertainment workers, and members of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA partner, the Cambodian Prostitutes Union, spoke about conditions in the sector. Rina* is now unemployed after being fired after refusing to agree to work ten days without pay. She was regularly forced to drink until she passed out and felt she was forced into this work to care for her two children and elderly mother. Putting herself at significant physical and sexual risk, she earnt around USD5 a day. Theary* had a similar story, being squeezed by escaping grinding poverty in the countryside, the high cost of living in Phnom Penh, sexual and physical violence and the burden of caring for children and elderly relatives.
It is clear that the beer promotion industry actively encourages beer promotion women into selling sex through unliveable wages, a lack of social protection and a perverse incentive system that forces women to drink uncontrollably.
The report made many significant recommendations, but the group thought the biggest priorities were supporting the trade unions, such as Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA partner the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, and developing and OH&S regulation mechanism to monitor venues.
The full report is available on the ILO website here.
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