Report on the promotional girls „If we cannot guarantee the working conditions of beer promoters in a certain market by the end of June, we will quit there,” Heineken promised in the spring. NRC (Dutch newspaper) went to take a look in Kenya.
Olivier van Beemen, 3 September 2018
Mercy (21) shows the tight green dresses featuring the beer logo in which she encourages café-goers a few times a week to drink as much Heineken and Amstel beer as possible. The Heineken dresses in particular leave little to the imagination. “I normally do not wear such short dresses,” she says. “It feels uncomfortable. I actually wanted a medium-sized one, but got a small-sized one.”
Beer brewer Heineken opened an office in Nairobi in 2001. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya. With the import brands Heineken and Amstel, the Dutch company wants to secure a market share against competitor East African Breweries, brewer of the popular local brand Tusker and part of the British drinks company Diageo.
A key aspect in Heineken’s marketing strategy is the deployment of young attractive women, who are to boost sales with special offers and presents. They are not directly employed by the brewer, but work via agencies.
“You have to be very thin for this job and have very visible curves. If the medium size is too small you will not get work,” says Mercy, who shares a small room with fellow student Sharon far outside the centre. Sharon is also a promotional girl for Heineken. “Customers often believe that we offer ourselves instead of beer. They start groping and touching us in intimate places.
Not very extreme
”Heineken promised it would step up its act following the revelations this spring in NRC and the book Bier voor Afrika [Beer for Africa]. “If we cannot guarantee the working conditions of beer promoters in a certain market by the end of June, we will stop deploying them there for the promotion of our brands,” guaranteed the world’s second largest beer brewer.
Heineken commissioned an internal investigation, conducted by the organisation Partner Africa, the results of which were announced in summarised form this summer, and it published a series of guidelines.
Sexual harassment purportedly only occurred in Mozambique, and Heineken claims its promotional activities have been put on hold there for the time being. It was claimed that sexual harassment or worse malpractices did not occur in the other 12 African countries. The women were not involved in prostitution, nor were they pressured into sleeping with superiors, according to the investigation. Top executive Jean-François van Boxmeer who, during his period as an expat in Congo, had an affair with a promotional girl, told NRC this summer he had not come across “very extreme situations”.
The brewing company has been aware of the poor working conditions and the sexual abuse of African promotional girls for at least 15 years, but has done little to improve matters under the leadership of Van Boxmeer, who has been at the helm since 2005.
The customer is king
It becomes clear from conversations with six promotional girls in Nairobi that prostitution and sexual abuse still occur to this day. For example, the women consider unwanted touching of buttocks and breasts to be part of the job. “If you resist, the customer will not buy the product and you will not reach your target,” says Mercy. “So you will have to accept it up to a certain point.”
The women acknowledge without exception that the promotional activities often go hand in hand with prostitution. They speak of sponsors or sugar daddies, rich customers with whom many girls come into contact and sleep with. This generates substantially more than the promotional activities. The agency will accept it, as long as it takes place after working hours.
And it does not stop here. Promotional girl Malani (24) says she has been pressured into having sex with older men many times, including a bar manager. “He said I did not do my job well and wanted my telephone number. Then he kept calling me, until I agreed to meet with him. If you do not sleep with someone like that, they will call the sellers of Heineken and say you do not do your job well. They will ruin you and you will lose your job.”
She says she was also pressured into sleeping with guests in bars. “The client is king, they will say. You will have to accommodate all their wishes.” According to Malani, this also happens to many other promotional girls in Nairobi. Her findings are similar to the experiences of colleagues in Nairobi, who reported earlier this year that many have sex with a superior in exchange for work.
It is Saturday night in the popular nightlife venue Tribeka in the centre of Nairobi. It is a bar like any bar in the world: loud American music, screens showing football and reasonably well-to-do customers from the middle class.
Mercy and Sharon are promoting Amstel here this evening. The brand name on the dresses is displayed on their buttocks, which consequently attract extra attention. They prefer working in Tribeka to many other places, yet they still regularly experience customers who are touchy touchy, as they call it. A supervisor from the agency is not usually present. If they run into real trouble, they hope the doorman will come to their rescue.
It is in this atmosphere that the two young women have to attract the attention of the generally male clientele. They tell customers that Amstel is from the Netherlands and is the result of a brewing process of 28 days, which makes it taste “riper” than many other lagers. Moreover, tonight’s motto is “buy three, pay two”. The loud music forces them to stand close to customers or even press their body against them. Many café-goers view this as an invitation to put their arm around them, after which some proceed to grope them.
In spite of Heineken’s promise, the promotional girls have not seen any improvement in the last months. “Nothing has changed”, says Mercy. “And nothing will as long as we are sent to certain clubs.”
Mercy says that she has come to expect certain misconduct, to which she has become accustomed over the course of time.
Five of the six women with whom NRC speaks are students. They are willing to talk to the newspaper on the condition that their surnames are not published; they are known to the editors. They do not come across as powerless victims, but strike an assertive impression. For example, with a joint action at the beginning of this year, they managed to get the agency to increase their daily pay from 8 to 12 euros. Why do these women accept such working conditions?
Mercy says that she has come to expect certain misconduct, to which she has become accustomed over the course of time. Their income is not especially high measured against local standards, but it could be worse, and a promotional girl enjoys more status than a barmaid, for example.
“Many girls are not aware that the behaviour with which they are faced is actually unacceptable,” says Brenda Wambui, who is affiliated with Frida, an international network of young feminists. “They assume that they will have to dance with a barman, that they will be groped and that they will have to go back with someone in exchange for extra money. They do not reflect on it from the perspective of sexual violence. It is up to us to create awareness.
She sees parallels with the #metoo movement in the West and has noticed that promotional girls in Kenya recently mounted a protest against unacceptable behaviour, not only in the alcohol industry. “They will post a picture on Facebook or Twitter, for example. ‘This man works for this company and asks for sexual favours in exchange for a job and I did not accommodate his request.’ People speak about it now, and this creates a wider debate.”
”Wambui believes the most effective approach is to exert public pressure on businesses such as Heineken, for example in social media. “They loathe bad publicity. This forces them to deal with issues and it could alter their behaviour.
Heineken responded by saying it appreciates the openness of the Kenyan women. In Nairobi, the tight dresses are replaced by black long trousers and T-shirts and there will be a hotline where women can report their complaints and raise their concerns anonymously. Transport home after work has been arranged.
”Heineken says it has stopped deploying promotional girls in five countries. It is unclear which countries it concerns; the company singles out Mozambique.
Furthermore, the brewer goes back on its previous promise to guarantee the working conditions of the African promotional girls. “However much we would like it, these improvements cannot be achieved overnight unfortunately,” writes a spokesperson. “Unwanted conduct towards female bar visitors in general and beer promoters in particular is a stubborn problem. We will continue to do our utmost to create a safe working environment for the beer promoters.”
RESPONSE BY HEINEKEN
In a response to the article on promotional girls in Kenya, Heineken says it takes the working conditions of the beer promoters very seriously. “We will continue to be committed to a safe working environment for the promoters – as a company, but also as part of the alcohol industry within which we want to lead the way,” according to the drinks company.
“We understand that the following question is raised: why doesn’t Heineken simply stop deploying beer promoters? We have also asked ourselves this question, of course. The answer to it is that you do not solve the problems this way, but shift them. Beer promoters will lose their revenues or start working for other brands and companies. Instead of running way from the problems, we choose to improve the working conditions of the beer promoters together with others.”
Olivier van Beemen is author of the book Bier voor Afrika. Het best bewaarde geheim van Heineken [Beer for Africa. Heineken’s best kept secret].
Link to the orginal article with illustrations
Link to a Dutch documentary (with interviews with the promotion girls in English)
Link to a recent article in French in Le Monde