Labour rights

Cambodia takes first crucial step towards protecting entertainment workers

New ground-breaking regulation for entertainment workers in Cambodia marks the first attempt in the region to reduce widespread stigma and discrimination in the sector.

Feature | 10 November 2014
© Peter Caton
PHNOM PENH (ILO News) – Her name is Sopheap. This 35 year-old married woman is the mother of two little boys. She was born into a poor family with six siblings in Kandal province on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Sopheap has little formal education, but she happens to be a talented singer. In 2007, she began working as a professional singer for private events such as birthday and wedding parties – both popular celebrations in Cambodia.

However, her economic situation deteriorated last year. Her husband is living abroad, and she has to support not only her own children, but also her parents, three sisters, two brothers and a niece.

The little money she was making from singing at birthday and wedding parties was no longer enough, so she decided to become an entertainment worker. This term applies to a range of people who work in hotels, restaurants, guesthouses, karaoke parlours, discotheques, beer gardens, casinos and massage parlours, among other settings.

Sopheap now works in a beer garden and a karaoke parlor near Phnom Penh airport. Her job consists of inviting and guiding customers into the beer garden, talking and drinking with them, and singing karaoke songs.

"I usually work from 6pm until midnight, but I sometimes need to stay longer if we still have customers. Every three days, I have to work from 10 am to 4:30 pm and then go back to work from 7:30 pm until midnight, sometimes longer,” she says.

Sopheap barely sees her family, since she only has two days off per month. Missing work beyond those two days often means paying “fines” or seeing her already small salary further reduced.

Addressing tough challenges

“Workers in this sector are exposed to a range of safety and health issues and often face a greater risk of HIV infection,” explains Chuong Por, the ILO’s National HIV and Gender Focal Point for Cambodia. She also highlights numerous incidents where women are coerced into undergoing abortions so that they can continue to work, especially when sex work is involved.

Things are, however, slowly improving. Earlier this month, Cambodia launched a new ministerial regulation on “working conditions, occupational safety and health rules of entertainment service enterprises, establishment and companies.”

Cambodia’s efforts are ground-breaking, reaching into a sector where most governments fail to provide adequate protection."
Yoshiteru Uramoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia-Pacific
This new regulation, adopted by the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, addresses some of the many challenges that entertainment workers face, including poor occupational safety and health conditions, lack of information on preventing occupational accidents and illnesses, high levels of violence and sexual harassment, excessive working hours, low pay and forced alcohol consumption. In addition, the regulation also calls for the elimination of forced labour and addresses common rights violations in the sector, such as imposition of penalties, wage reductions and forced abortions.

“Cambodia’s efforts are ground-breaking, reaching into a sector where most governments fail to provide adequate protection,” said Yoshiteru Uramoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia-Pacific, in a statement issued after the new regulation was officially announced.

"The new ministerial regulation aims -- among other objectives -- at improving industrial relations in the entertainment industry as well as the awareness of the public. The next steps will be to strengthen the capacity building of labour inspectors to better implement the new text and further raise awareness among entertainment business owners and workers through education and training," said H.E. Dr. Ith Samheng, Cambodian Minister of Labour and Vocational Training.

The agreement was reached after extensive tripartite negotiations -- also involving non-governmental organizations -- facilitated by the ILO. The ILO also helped create a range of workplace level programs in the sector focusing on occupational safety and health, labour rights and gender equality.

“Even though questions have been raised on how such a law can be implemented, the reality is that this is a first step in providing basic labour rights for women and men that so far have not been covered by Cambodian laws or regulations,” said Richard Howard, ILO Senior Regional Specialist on HIV and AIDS for Asia and the Pacific.

The example of “beer promotion girls”

Sar Mora attended part of these talks as President of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF). He hopes the new ministerial regulation can improve working conditions for all entertainment workers, but he warns that there is still a long way to go before the text can be implemented. The entertainment sector is usually opaque and informal work is prevalent, which makes it very difficult for workers to invoke their rights.

Our organization’s members are ready to implement this new ministerial regulation."
Engkakada Danh, general manager of the CAMFEBA
“Progress will be slow, but there are areas where we have already been able to improve entertainment workers’ conditions. For example, female workers who work promoting beer brands now enjoy greater protection. We have set up a hotline number that they can call in case of abuse by drunken costumers,” Mora explained.

Employers also welcome the move. “Our organization’s members are ready to implement this new ministerial regulation in collaboration with other stakeholders to improve health and labour conditions of workers,” said Engkakada Danh, general manager of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations (CAMFEBA).

Now that the regulation has been formally launched, there is a need to work more extensively with the ILO’s tripartite partners and relevant stakeholders, including NGOs, to make it a reality in the daily lives of entertainment workers such as Sopheap. The new regulation will also hopefully serve as an example of good practice for neighbouring countries.