Af­ter dark work­ers

Meet the girls push­ing cig­a­rettes and al­co­hol in bars.

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Society - NYO ME For free le­gal help, please con­tact the Le­gal Clinic Myanmar on their Face­book page www.face­book.com/ Le­gal­clin­icmyan­mar/or by phone: 0933 376 993.

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.

Photo: Nyo Me

Girls pro­mote beer on 19th street on Septem­ber 2018.

Sakura re­laxes at Inya Lake in Au­gust 2018.

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