Walk into a Cambodian restaurant or bar, and here they come: attractive "beer girls" wearing gowns in colors of some of the biggest brands brewed.
Each is vying to sell a particular label--Foster's, Stella Artois, Heineken, Carlsberg, San Miguel, Tiger, Singha--and hopes the customer will pick her to pour his beer all night.
The problem is, the relationship often extends past closing hours, and health officials worry that foreign beer companies may be inadvertently encouraging the spread of AIDS in Cambodia.
There are 4,000 to 5,000 beer girls, and Ministry of Health officials say many of them have sex with clients after work, some for pay, some not.
"We worry so much because the clients always consider the beer girl is safer than other direct sex workers, but it's not true," Dr. Tia Phalla, director of the ministry's AIDS program, said in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires.
Some companies have strict rules against fraternization with customers and send inspectors to enforce them. But many beer girls sleep with clients, sometimes in exchange for money or gifts or to encourage sales.
The women, who say they are hired for their looks, typically come from rural areas and get caught up in the capital's night life. At one Phnom Penh restaurant, beer workers said sex with customers is common. They also said they felt obliged to flirt and drink with their customers.
Some, such as those employed by Australia's Foster's Brewing Group Ltd., are paid commissions for extra sales. Foster's said it has no rules on after-hours fraternization.
"We take no responsibility for what the girls may do outside working hours," said Malcolm Paul, the company's Hong Kong-based regional director.
Paul noted condoms to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases are widely available in Cambodia and said his employees are adults.
"I don't think there is a pressure on the girls to get that extra bonus, but it's a part of the job to make sure the guys and the girls have a good time," he said.
Beer company officials say the women are essential to their marketing efforts and are far more effective than billboards or print and television advertising.
"If the girls are not present at the point of consumption, all the money spent on advertising goes down the drain," said Peter Ong, managing director of Cambodia Brewery Ltd.
The company, a joint venture of Singapore-based Fraser & Neave Ltd. and the Dutch brewer Heineken, has 600 beer girls to market its Tiger, ABC Stout and Anchor brands. It says it prohibits fraternizing with customers.
Two years ago, the company, which has 60% of Cambodia's beer market, sent its workers to a Ministry of Health education course on AIDS and the spread of the virus that causes it.
Other prominent brewers either did not respond to written requests for information or said they were unaware of how their product in Cambodia is distributed.
Cambodia has one of the highest AIDS rates in Asia. According to the American aid agency Family Health International, there is a 3% infection rate among pregnant woman in Cambodia, compared to 2% in Thailand and less than 1% in China and India.
The threat of AIDS may be greater for beer girls because they don't consider themselves to be prostitutes and at risk. According to a 1997 survey by the Ministry of Health, only about 10% of beer girls said they always used condoms, compared to 42% of prostitutes.
No one wants the companies to stop hiring beer girls, since jobs paying the equivalent of $50 a month are tough to find in Cambodia. But the ministry wants the companies to give the beer girls safe-sex training and perhaps free condoms--something the ministry cannot afford to do.