After dark workers
Meet the girls pushing cigarettes and alcohol in bars.
DESPITE being dressed in sexy attire, 18-year-old Sakura (not her real name) shivers with shyness. It is night time and she stands in a bar surrounded by a predominantly male crowd in a boozy and smoky atmosphere. After a deep breath, she puts on her biggest smile and drags her high heels toward drunken customers, offering cigarettes. That is her job: selling and promoting cigarettes in bars.
“I was frightened and shy at first as the customers I interact with are drunk for the most part. Some of them get flirty after a few drinks, which frightened me,” she said.
Sakura starts working at 3pm and likes to spend her free time outdoors to forget the smell of cigarettes. She came to Yangon last year to become a nurse, but started this part-time job a month and a half ago, hoping to finance her education.
Like many, she moved to Yangon due to economic hardships in her hometown in Shan State, seduced by the opportunity to make a quick buck. Yet, for a girl to work late in bars promoting cigarettes or alcohol in suggestive attire is seen as disgraceful by many.
“I first thought I would only have to advertise the cigarette brand to bar owners, but that is not what I do. They invested a lot in my training and even had popular models as teachers,” she says. “But if my parents knew about what I do, they would kill me”.
Quick to judge
On the job, Sakura and her colleagues must wear short dresses. She worries about customers judging her in conservative Myanmar, but she knows that refusing to wear the sexy clothes will get her fired.
During the job interview, she was asked if she agreed to wear the clothes and dye her hair. “I ended up saying yes. I needed the money,” she says.
Sakura is right to assume that her clientele draw hasty conclusions. Weekend asked several regular customers for their opinions. Ko Ko Zaw, 40, summarised it for us: “It is not good for a young girl to work late shifts in bars in sexy attire. Working in beer stations at night says that she is not good for a long-term relationship”.
Yet many girls choose this job to escape poverty. No one works to get experience in this field, says Phyo Thura, operations manager for Umbrella marketing, one of the companies managing the girls.
Higher education is essential to find employment and only those lacking a diploma do this kind of work to make money. It is only a bit better than working in a karaoke TV bar, which attracts a similar workforce of uneducated and often poor women, says Soe Myat Thu, who has worked at a beer company for three years.
The part-time job pays them over K200,000 a month, which they use to finance their education or for extra money, he says. No means no Workings in an environment surrounded by drunks and pushed to wear sexy attire to promote a product, Sakura strongly disagrees with the slogan, ‘The customer is always right.’
Every working day, cigarette girls face verbal and physical abuse, ranging from inappropriate suggestions to men grabbing their private areas or worse. The daily harassment leads many to resign.
“A colleague recently quit as she couldn’t take it anymore. Some places are fine but others are not good. The worst is when we work in Hlaing Tharyar township,” Sakura says.
When asked why the bars do not hire boys instead, Umbrella marketing’s Phyo Thura says boys are less likely to overlook client misbehaviour and more likely to talk back, which can harm the brand. The business relies on the assumption that women are more docile and less likely to complain when harassed.
To reduce sexual harassment, the company trains the women to stand at a good distance from customers, “so their body scent does not reach the client,” says Phyo Thura.
“To be honest, I’d rather not promote cigarettes or alcohol as it is difficult to replace staff and there are many problems,” he adds. To make up for the risks, promoters are paid more than those selling food or non-alcoholic beverages.
What legal remedy?
When a problem arises, the women first inform their supervisor at the bar. But for serious cases, the crime must be reported to the police.
The penal code section 354 states that “assault or criminal force against woman with intent to outrage her modesty must be punished.” Violators can be sentenced up to two years in prison and/or fined.
“Women, including promotion girls, don’t have to tolerate harassment,” says Hla Hla Yee of the Legal Clinic Myanmar.
However, although cigarette girls are regularly victims of harassment, no case has ever been reported to the police.
“Our country has laws, but they are not enforced. Citizens don’t know their rights,” says Khin Myo Thant, project manager at World Vision, a non-governmental organisation.
Cigarette girls never report sexual harassment by customers for fear of retribution by the accused or of being fired. Their employers make it clear to them that customers should never be bothered, says Sakura. Shrouded in opacity, most cigarette girls we asked refused to talk to us, because their employer forbade it and senior promoters discouraged it.
Young girls in need of money continue to accept risks they shouldn’t have to face, often justifying it by telling themselves it is just temporary. Sakura herself says she won’t do it for long, just another month or two. “I am waiting to make enough money to finance my education. I hope to go to school in my hometown next year,” she says. But she admits that her savings will only cover her education for one year and she might have to come back.
Girls promote beer on 19th street on September 2018.
Sakura relaxes at Inya Lake in August 2018.