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Free trade is bad for women. A WTO declaration won’t change that.

Gendered exploitation is at the heart of the free trade agenda -- a few tweaks to the edges won’t make it feminist.

Container Ships, San Francisco bay. Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t be fooled by the news of a trade and gender declaration at next week’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Buenos Aires, or by stories of Canada’s new ‘feminist’ approach to trade. Gendered exploitation is at the heart of the free trade agenda - a few tweaks to the edges won’t make it feminist. In fact, it won’t do anything much at all. If we really want an international trade system that works for women, tokenism won’t cut it. We need to overhaul our approach to trade. 

Trade policy has traditionally been presented as gender neutral, with women described as beneficiaries of an international trade system which, as this story goes, increases their employment opportunities and expands their financial independence. But after two decades of free trade fundamentalism, inequality is on the rise and the world’s richest 8 men now have as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the population. In 2017, women still make up majority of the world’s poor.

The notion that trade is gender neutral, and free trade good for women, simply doesn’t stand up to the evidence. Hence the push for gender aware trade policy. The problem is that non-binding measures like WTO declarations and the inclusion of gender chapters in trade agreements might make for nice news stories, but they won’t address the myriad ways our free trade system exploits women, particularly women of colour. 

This exploitation has been well documented in the ever expanding manufacturing sectors, where women represent nothing more than a cheap form of labour for global corporations looking to expand their profits. Female workers make up most of those employed in the notoriously exploitative export sectors, particularly in garment and textile manufacturing. Most of these women lack basic employment security and experience widespread labour rights violations, working up to 16 hours a day, seven days and week while not even earning a living wage.

measures like WTO declarations and the inclusion of gender chapters in trade agreements might make for nice news stories, but they won’t address the myriad ways our free trade system exploits women, particularly women of colour. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Female farmers and agricultural workers have been devastated by free trade policies that open up agricultural markets to foreign investment. Trade liberalisation has systematically undermined subsistence and small-scale farming, opening up countries to corporate land-grabs that strip women of their land and food production capacity. Local agricultural industries that are unable to compete with global corporations have also been decimated, forcing farmers into exploitative cash-crop export sectors that largely exclude women. The outcome is widespread food insecurity that destroys communities and deepens women’s poverty.

Modern trade deals, like the CETA and the prospective TISA deal, are more focused on establishing a regulatory framework that lock-in liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation than regulating trade at all. Provisions that open up public services to privatisation and increase the price of medicine are bad for everyone, but they hit women the hardest. It’s women and girls that go without medical treatment when it becomes too expensive. And it’s women that fill the gaps where public services are no longer affordable, which adds to their domestic labour and care responsibilities while reducing their access to education and healthcare. And as inequality increases, as we know it will, it’s women that will be plunged further into poverty.

A non-binding gender declaration won’t reverse the tide of privatisation and it won’t signal a move away from the liberalisation and deregulation agenda that forms the core of our free trade system. If governments are serious about developing trade policy that works for women, we need a new approach to trade. An approach that’s not underpinned by a corporate agenda built on the exploitation of women. An approach that actually works to address poverty and inequality.

This means paring back trade agreements to the regulation of trade in goods and granting human rights, labour rights and environmental standards supremacy over trade rules. It means protecting governments’ right to regulate – so they can make public policy that tackles gender inequality. It means enabling countries in the Global South to use tariffs and subsidies to protect their economies as they develop, so they can build industrial strategies that are compatible with their development agendas. In short, it means trade policy based on evidence not ideology.

WTO members can sign as many gender and trade declarations as they like, but it won’t make a difference for women. Free trade is antithetical to gender justice. To make trade policy work for women the global trade system needs a total overhaul. 


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