An international health organization has suspended its partnership with the Heineken beer company because of the controversial use of so-called "beer girls" to promote its products.
The Global Fund launched a partnership in January with the Dutch brewer in its latest campaign to battle Aids, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa. Heineken was to use its communications and logistics expertise to help shape effective messages, identify demand and provide quality control in shipments of medical supplies, according to a Heineken statement.
But the Global Fund announced on Thursday in a statement that it was suspending its partnership with Heineken "based on recent reports of the company's use of female beer promoters in ways that expose them to sexual exploitation and health risks", the U.S.' National Public Radio reported.
"We take these allegations very seriously and have challenged Heineken to examine their operations and make changes to protect women from sexual exploitation and health risks," said Global Fund executive director Peter Sands. "We are suspending the partnership until such time as Heineken can take appropriate action to address these issues."
The mostly young drink promoters are paid low wages — and work for tips, largely from groups of intoxicated men — to push certain beers in bars. Heineken has come under particular pressure to end the practice in Southeast Asia, especially Cambodia. A 2011 study found that some Heineken beer girls in Cambodian bars moonlighted as sex workers for extra money and faced increased risks of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
Reporter Olivier van Beemen revealed a similar situation in West African bars in an article in the Dutch publication NRC last week. That was apparently what Sands was referencing when he said "recent reports."
Heineken could not immediately be reached for comment. The company, however, responded to van Beemen's article, saying it took drink promoters' risk of sexual exploitation very seriously.
"The practices described go completely against what we stand for as a company, and therefore we strongly condemn these malpractices," said the Heineken statement. "The beer promoters are not employed by Heineken, but are sourced via external agencies ... this makes it difficult to properly supervise the working conditions. However, we simply cannot allow them to continue to be confronted with unwanted intimacies and abuse or even with prostitution during their work."
The company's statement concluded: "We will take further steps together with our local operating companies, promotional agencies and other relevant parties to deal with these malpractices and prevent them in the future."
Critics had earlier condemned Global Fund's partnership with Heineken, saying an organisation concerned with health should not work with a company pushing alcohol, which can be detrimental to health.
It's been a bad month for Heineken. Earlier this week, the company yanked a beer commercial that Chance the Rapper criticised as "terribly racist." The Heineken Light ad showed a bartender sliding a bottle along a bar, past several black people, to a fair-skinned woman as the tagline, "Sometimes, lighter is better," flashed on the screen.
"We missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns," a Heineken spokesperson told Newsweek.
The Global Fund is an international organisation headquartered in Geneva that's the largest funder of programmes to battle Aids, tuberculosis and malaria in the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided seed money for the organisation that began in 2002, according to Agence France Presse.