World Trade Organization courts women

Political article
The World Trade Organization purports to be pro-women. Yet a closer look at the Declaration on Women and Trade shows that it is primarily a kind of pink washing, a clumsy attempt at image correction.

In December 2017, 121 WTO Member States attending the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference adopted a Joint Declaration on Trade and Women's Economic Empowerment. Its purpose is to increase the participation of women in international trade by boosting entrepreneurship among women. NGOs reacted to this first in the Organization’s history by calling the declaration mere “pink washing” – based on the term “green washing”, which describes the way firms deceptively represent themselves as environment-friendly for reasons of image. Some 200 feminist and allied organizations the world over see the declaration as a transparent manoeuvre, an attempt to exploit the struggle for gender equality, to buttress the neoliberal model and put the emphasis on women entrepreneurs while forgetting other women who are just as concerned. "We will not allow women to be used as a Trojan horse for expanding a system that is destroying their lives and those of children, peasants and workers, as well as the planet!", says Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva. "The liberalizations spearheaded by the WTO have depressed wages and labour standards to historic lows and opened the way for foreign investors to exploit women as flexible and cheap labour", adds Joms Salvador from the Filipino women's alliance Gabriella.

Trade is not gender neutral

In reaction to this "good idea in appearance only", NGOs the world over, including Alliance Sud, have formed a Gender and Trade Coalition, whose Unity Statement strikes an entirely different tone from that of the WTO. The Coalition sees itself as a feminist alliance for trade justice that will tackle the negative impacts of trade rules on women’s rights and devise policy responses that address the structural causes of gendered human rights violations. In short, it is about showing that trade policy is not gender-neutral. For women are not just entrepreneurs, but also producers, consumers, traders, workers and the ones who mostly do unpaid work. The deregulation and liberalization of public services are undermining their rights. Whence the call for replacing competition with solidarity, growth with human and sustainable development, consumption with conservation, individualism with the public good and market governance with participatory democracy.

Since the adoption of the Buenos Aires declaration, the WTO has organized seminars on trade and gender issues, for example, in early December last year in Geneva. The Gender and Trade Coalition complained in an open letter that they were not meaningfully included. At the seminar, a World Bank representative stated that export companies that form part of global value chains employ proportionally more women. She did concede at the same time, however, that "most of the business models we use assume that there is full employment, that no-one is employed in the informal sector and that women can easily switch from one sector to the other. And we are all too aware that these assumptions are not accurate." A representative of the International Labour Office (ILO) pointed out that women work mainly in industries that have not benefited at all from lower tariffs – in India as well as in the industrialized countries. The central question as to the gender-neutrality of trade elicited an equally contradictory answer.

Low-paying jobs for the unskilled

Ever more – 60 to be precise – of the over 500 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) worldwide today contain gender-specific provisions. Most relate to cooperation between the genders, others to gender equality, international gender instruments or national gender policies. For the eventuality of a dispute, however, only the Canada-Israel FTA provides for recourse to the dispute settlement mechanism; three others provide for consultations. All the others, including all of Switzerland's free trade agreements, lack any specific provisions on gender issues.

In a recently published report the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) stated that according to its research, the regional integration process between Mercosur members (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) has only negligibly reduced gender inequalities. Trade opening had indeed created new job opportunities for women, but those were mostly low-skilled, low-wage jobs. Women would become economically empowered only when the region becomes less dependent on agriculture and mining. Mercosur countries would then be less vulnerable to external shocks and better able to generate quality employment.

It is worth recalling that Switzerland is currently negotiating an FTA with Mercosur. The impact assessment of such an agreement being requested by Alliance Sud should also include looking into its implications for the economic empowerment of women.