Rasmey*, a 26-year-old worker at a karaoke parlor in Phnom Penh, recounts the pressure she has faced to never come into work pregnant.
“When I arrive at my workplace, the manager tells me and all of the women that the place has had very few customers for about two or three days. They’ve bought pregnancy tests for us to take. One by one all the women in the KTV, all except the men, they call us to take a test in the toilet while two other women are there to look at the result. If we test negative it’s OK, but whoever tests positive will be fired on the spot.”
She has worked at the venue for about six years now. She says it’s the same for all women who work at KTVs or beer gardens — bosses prohibit them from being pregnant if they want to keep working.
“You can abort it or whatever, but the place does not allow pregnant women to work here,” the women are told, she says.
Rasmey has had two abortions herself.
“The first time, my mother took me to do it when the fetus was 1 month old, and the last time the fetus was 4 months old, and growing a hand and leg already. After an abortion, I would need to immediately ice, then go back home and take a hot bath. We need to take care of ourselves because it’s like giving birth,” she says.
“Two days after the abortion I would go back to work as normal, because I don’t want anybody to know that I had an abortion. I can drink only a little because I’m afraid of abdominal pain. I had a lot of pain in my stomach the first time I had an abortion. I didn’t take medicine or drink beer with customers. That time, because I didn’t take any medicine, my stomach started to hurt until it seized up. I started to cry and wanted to go back home, but my friend put on an ice pack to dull my pain for relief. I went out, ‘to eat noodles,’ and took medicine.”
Six entertainment workers told VOD of forced pregnancy tests, pressure to terminate and the experience of self-induced abortions while trying to hold onto jobs. As the women experience potential trauma, the motivation among employers often comes down to superstition: Pregnant women are “four-eyed girls” bringing bad business.
The Labor Ministry says it wants women to come forward about the abuse as it is aware of the issue, but acknowledges it has never taken any such business owners to court, instead reaching agreements with them that include fines and promises to obey the law in the future.
A Sector’s Discrimination
Much of Cambodia’s entertainment industry can be traced back to prostitution for U.N. workers and soldiers during the early 1990s, says Ou Tephalin, Cambodian Food And Service Workers Federation president.
The U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia administered the country following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and in the lead-up to the 1993 national election. About 20,000 foreign military and civilian personnel flooded the country and oversaw the attempted return to democracy, in which Hun Sen lost the vote but became co-prime minister after announcing a secession threat.
“The entertainment sector was born, also because of UNTAC,” Tephalin says.
According to the Tourism Ministry, Cambodia had 1,293 entertainment venues registered in March, including 1,084 KTVs, 109 clubs and discos, 16 night clubs and 84 beer gardens, employing about 18,381 workers.
Many beer gardens and KTVs, in addition to serving food, alcohol and offering karaoke, incorporate sex work into their business.
Their workers face discrimination in the wider community, and are vulnerable to abuse, Tephalin says.
“The owners look at them as just a thing that attracts customers. They will do anything to make their business grow,” she says. “It looks like modern slavery, because the employers do not do anything to protect their workers.”
According to the Abortion Law of 1997, anyone who compels a woman to have an abortion can be punished with one to five years in jail.
Firing workers for pregnancies or pressuring them into abortions are violations of the protections required by law, she says. The employers make money off the women, but treat them as a curse in need of cleansing.
“I’ve faced many such things,” says Sreyoun*, a 32-year-old beer garden waitress, speaking of an instance in Meanchey district. “One day, when I walked in to work for the first time at a restaurant in Kbal Thnal, the owner was throwing salt and rice and burning paper for me to walk past.”
Pregnancies are the same, she says: “Bad luck.” Whenever business is slow, the pregnancy tests come out.
Sophal*, 32, a former KTV manager who is now a beer garden waitress, says she has had three abortions, and felt she had no choice.
“I don’t even remember when. I did it because I needed the money to support my living,” Sophal says. “Before the test they would tell us that if the test is positive, you won’t get your monthly payment.”
‘Here to Help’
VOD sent letters seeking a response to three national institutions, the Human Rights Committee of Cambodia, the Women’s Affairs Ministry and the Labor Ministry.
Only the Labor Ministry answered questions. The Human Rights Committee said they do not work on women’s rights and asked that reporters contact the Women’s Affairs Ministry, which did not respond.
Labor Ministry deputy director of inspections Khem Bunchhean says he is aware of the issue, but officials don’t have enough evidence to punish the owners because the victims do not provide information to officers.
“What’s making this worse is that they still believe that they don’t have any rights against their bosses. But the ministry is here to help them. We are open for them anytime for any problem,” Buncchean says.
He adds that the ministry has taken punitive measures against some restaurants, clubs and KTVs, “but I don’t have the number in hand.”
“We haven’t sent any file to sue those in this industry to the court yet, because when we find something wrong we fine them first, and they all accept their mistakes and agree with us to follow the law and pay the fine.”
Three KTV owners approached by VOD in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap declined to comment.
Chim Channeang, secretary-general of the Cambodian NGO Committee on CEDAW, says the Labor Ministry should not wait to take court action, as it makes it hard for victims to believe the authorities will support them.
“The authorities solve problems with their feelings, alongside the employer, rather than using the law. This is their habit,” Channeang says. “They think that it is just a small problem between a worker and a shop owner.”
The government’s duty is to ensure that neither public institutions nor private enterprises abuse or discriminate against women, she says.
“I think the government should find out and understand the psychological and social impact on the victims. When the women become victims, why they are afraid to file a lawsuit.”
Some 12 percent of Cambodian women aged 15 to 49 have had an abortion, according to the Demographic and Health Survey of 2014. Thirty percent did the abortion themselves, according to the survey.
Ping Chutema, director of clinical service at the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia, says it’s life-threatening to undertake an abortion without trained experts.
“Some women continue to bleed,” Chutema says. “Some will have residue in their womb if they don’t have someone clean the womb. The residue causes bleeding … and causes infections. It can affect her health, and if we don’t treat it on time, it can cause death.”
Sreymech*, 32, has worked in the sector since she was underage in 2001. She says she once quit a job instead of having an abortion after seeing what a friend went through.
“I have a friend — she was four months pregnant, but told me it was only about two months. I said, OK, if it’s two months you can have an abortion by medicine, but if it’s more than two months you can’t because it’s dangerous. But she lied to me. The truth was that the child was 4 months and when she took the medicine the fetus didn’t come out,” Sreymech says.
“She went back to work and told the KTV owner that she already had an abortion, and the boss allowed her to work as normal. But when she was in the KTV room singing with a customer, she ran to the restroom. When I went in I saw the fetus had dropped out of her womb in the restroom.”
The aftermath was a cleansing ritual.
“The next day, the owner took a monk to bless the establishment because they said my friend had dropped an unborn child in their place and it would bring bad luck to their business.”
*Names have been changed to protect the victims from reprisals by employers
(Translated and edited from the original article published on VOD Khmer in 2020)