Diakonia - People change the world
Without knowing my rights and all the support from my colleagues and comrades at CFSWF, I wouldn’t have had the strength to fight, says Mara Priem. Photo: Annette U Wallqvist

You can break a chopstick – but not a whole bunch

Mara Priem is one of many beer workers in Cambodia, working under lousy conditions, the salary isn't fixed, nor are the working hours. She’s often forced to drink together with the bar’s customers and sexual harassment is common. Despite threats of loosing her job, Mara is fighting for better conditions. And she will not give up until the work environment has improved.

Mara Priem is a single mother with two children, 9 and 11 years old. What she really would like is a small shop at home, enabling her to look after the children. Instead, she has to leave her boys alone every afternoon, six days a week, when she goes to the bar to sell beer, a job she held for more than four years. The goal set by the bar is to sell 45 boxes, 1080 bottles, every month. If she’s not reaching the target, her employer forces her to stay longer or even to work on days she is supposed to be off.

Immediately wanted to join the organisation

When Mara Priem first came in contact with Diakonia’ s partner organization, Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, CFSWF, she immediately got interested in the organization’s work and decided to join.

-  I joined because I really believe CFSWF can help improving the situation for us who are selling beer. In addition I wanted to learn more about the labour legislation.

Colleagues were afraid of reprisals

After training from the trade union, she decided to start a branch at her workplace. Several of her colleagues were afraid of reprisals from the employer, but Mara managed to start a branch with 10 people. But her employer didn’t like her activism and gave her a warning and threatened to fine her.

-  He said any organization that wants to establish at the workplace has to ask for permission. But since I was aware of my rights, I decided to challenge him.

Knowing her rights gives strength

Despite threats of termination of her contract, Mara insisted that the branch should remain. As a punishment she wasn’t appointed team leader, a position she previously had been promised.

- Without knowing my rights and all the support from my colleagues and comrades at CFSWF, I wouldn’t have had the strength to fight. That proves you can break one chopstick, but not a whole bunch, she says.

The change Mara wants to work for is a clear plan for salaries, with a minimum wage guaranteed. She wants right to paid vacation, a safe working environment and a prohibition for the employer to raise the sales goals as soon as he sees they are met.

- To be able to sell all that beer, we are forced to drink with the customers. That is very challenging for me since I have to choose between my health and the sales goal. To work extra hours is not an option since I have to take care of my children, says Mara Priem.

The foreman was cruel and arrogant

Thanks to Mara’s engagement in the union, the employer no longer calls Mara and her colleagues for work on their Sundays off.

-  Before he made us come if the sales goal wasn’t met.

But the backlash came when a new foreman came to the bar.

-  He was a former soldier, both cruel and arrogant. He frightened everyone in the union branch until I was the only one left. No one dared to challenge him.

Gets a lot of support from others

But Mara refused to give up and now her branch has grown again, this time to eight members. But to get there hasn’t been easy. Since she is always challenging her employer, she’s been accused of being a member of the opposition party in Cambodia.

- But I get so much support and encouragement, that I will not give up until Guinness starts to treat us so called beer girls with the respect we all deserve, says Mara Priem.