Beer ladies keeping sex pests at arm's-length

Elna Tan, 55, who has been working as a beer promoter for more than 20 years, talks about dealing with harassment, drunk customers and romantic advances.
Ms Elna Tan, who has been in the business for over 20 years, said that little things she does to deal with customers who try to be funny have kept her safe, including not drinking with customers, not following them somewhere else after work and not a
Ms Elna Tan, who has been in the business for over 20 years, said that little things she does to deal with customers who try to be funny have kept her safe, including not drinking with customers, not following them somewhere else after work and not accepting their tips.ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Coffee shops and beer firms report fewer cases thanks to training the women get, new laws

Beer promoter Elna Tan, 55, has been in the business for over 20 years. And it has not been easy.

Besides having to stay on their feet and serve customers quickly, Ms Tan said that beer promoters can encounter male customers that get rowdy or try to touch them inappropriately after a few beers.

Some ask the beer promoters to go out with them after work. Others want the beer ladies to drink with them.

Fortunately for Ms Tan and other promoters The Sunday Times spoke to, these incidents did not get worse, thanks in part to steps they took. "It is about protecting yourself," said Ms Tan, who works with Asia Pacific Breweries (APB).

"If I see a customer who is too touchy, I pour his drink from across the table instead of beside him. I keep my distance. I also hold the beer bottle around the bottom and stretch it out across the table, so he doesn't get a chance to touch my hand."

But some customers have gone too far.

Two weeks ago, a New Zealand tourist was jailed for six months for molesting a beer promoter at a coffee shop in Jurong West. Among other things, he forcefully grabbed the breast of the promoter and later offered 50 cents to the victim after molesting her.

  • HOW TO BE A GOOD BEER PROMOTER

  • Beer promoter Elna Tan, 55, who has been in the business for over 20 years, has some tips on how to be good in her line of work.

    BE ALERT

    Always be on the lookout for arriving customers, by keeping an eye on the entrance of the coffee shop. If they are regulars, prepare their drinks before they even order because you know their preferences well.

    KNOW HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF

    Sometimes, customers get drunk and rowdy or touchy. One way to protect yourself is to serve the tipsy customer from across the table instead of standing beside him.

    BE FRIENDLY

    Have conversations with customers and be genuinely caring towards others.

    BE QUICK

    When there is competition from promoters from other beer companies, you must make sure every glass is full of your own beer. Once a beer promoter from another company pours his or her beer, it is hard to get the customer back to drinking your beer.

In October, a former National University of Singapore (NUS) researcher from Belarus was fined $3,000 for squeezing another beer promoter's buttocks in a Woodlands coffee shop.

While there are no readily available figures on the number of cases in which beer ladies were molested, police said that between January and September, there were 1,168 outrage of modesty cases reported, 194 more cases - or a 19.9 per cent increase - compared with the same period last year.

The beer promoter cases surfaced amid worldwide reports of sexual harassment at the workplace, including women in the entertainment industry accusing film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

While there are still instances of beer promoters being sexually harassed, the number of cases here has been falling in recent years, according to coffee shops and beer companies.

Mr Hong Poh Hin, chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, said that compared with 2010, sexual harassment of beer promoters in the past two years has dropped by at least half. His association represents more than 400 coffee shops.

APB - which hires and manages some 550 beer promoters here selling brands such as Tiger, Heineken, Baron's and Guinness - also said it has seen a 50 per cent decline in such cases since the company started training promoters in protecting themselves from sexual harassment.

APB, one of the largest beer companies here, started training beer promoters to detect and prevent alcohol intoxication, underage drinking, and drink driving in 2015.

The training also aims to equip promoters with strategies to mitigate alcohol-related issues, like drunk customers and those who behave rudely, boorishly or inappropriately towards beer promoters.

Ms Tan said that the little things she does to deal with customers who try to be funny have kept her safe. "I don't drink with customers nor will I follow them somewhere else after work. I also don't accept their tips, but I tell them to just come again and buy beer if they want to support me," she said.

 
 

Beer promoters from other beer companies also said they were taught how to deal with customers who might have lost their inhibitions due to drinking. One beer company, for instance, said it trains its promoters not to sell to drunk customers or to stand beside them.

Said a beer promoter in her 20s, who declined to be named and works at a coffee shop in the west: "Sometimes, the older men get touchy but I scold them and tell them I can report them to the police, then they'll stop. I'm quite fierce."

Another promoter in her 40s, who works in a coffee shop in the central area, said: "When I know someone is too intoxicated, I just walk away. We either ignore them or tell the coffee shop operator so they'll deal with it."

Mr Kenneth Lee, chairman of the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association, said coffee shop staff also look out for the beer promoters and help them when there is trouble.

"Once the police enter the picture, the police record will affect the coffee shop when (operators) want to renew their liquor licences. So it serves (everyone's interests) to minimise incidents."

Besides training, coffee shop associations said that the new laws limiting alcohol consumption have helped to curb cases of customers sexually harassing beer promoters.

JUST SELLING BEER

I took the job at first because beer promoters work at night, and I needed to be home in the day to care for my only son. It is my livelihood... We are not bar hostesses that drink with men, we are promoters who just sell the beer.

MS ELNA TAN

Since April 2015, drinking alcoholic beverages in all public places has been banned from 10.30pm to 7am. Retail shops are also not allowed to sell takeaway alcohol from 10.30pm to 7am.

Coffee shop associations said that most coffee shops stop selling liquor at about 10.30pm and clear the tables around 11pm.

"Nowadays, these new laws mean that there are fewer big incidents because people don't have the time to get very intoxicated," Foochow's Mr Hong explained.

"People who drink at neighbourhood coffee shops are also mostly regulars so the beer promoters already know their pattern of behaviour," he said.

Beer promoters usually work six days a week, from about 6pm to 11pm. The Sunday Times understands that they can earn between $1,000 and $2,000 without commission, depending on their experience.

BEING PRESENTABLE

For APB, it is not just about selling beer, but keeping a presentable and well-groomed image. They have officers who are assigned to specific areas and have about 50 to 60 beer promoters under their care. They walk about the coffee shops each night to ensure no incidents occur.

"They check that our dressing is correct - that the skirt is not too tight or the blouse too low," said beer promoter Ms Tan. "They also check that the make-up is natural enough and not too exaggerated."

For her, it is not about being sexy or seductive but about being friends with her customers.

"I try to make conversation with them and ask them where they come from, if they've eaten and even give advice when they're sad," she said. "But we cannot go overboard (and start) flirting."

At the end of the day, it is a job like any other that pays the bills and feeds the family.

"I took the job at first because beer promoters work at night, and I needed to be home in the day to care for my only son. It is my livelihood," Ms Tan said.

"We are not bar hostesses that drink with men, we are promoters who just sell the beer."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Beer ladies keeping sex pests at arm's-length'. Print Edition | Subscribe