Already before the crisis, discussions were going on as to which opportunities and risks trade agreements (might) bring for women. Now, the COVID-19 crisis has a particular serious impact on women – also in respect of international trade.
In view of the disadvantage for women, the COVID-19 crisis acts as a burning lens, which drastically exacerbates already existing inequalities. As a result of the pandemic, women have to cope with job losses, reduced access to education, more responsibility regarding household and care work as well as increasingly with domestic violence. Within the scope of the European Gender Equality Week, the EU Parliament Committee on International Trade has now hosted a debate on the economic impact of the crisis on women in international trade.
Trade agreements as lever for more gender equality?
According to Amrita Bahri, Co-Chairholder of the WTO Chair Programme, provisions on gender equality, embedded in trade agreements, may contribute to cushion the negative consequences of the pandemic for women in international trade. The problem: even if such provisions have been provided for in trade agreements, there is often a lack of opportunity in practice to enforce these provisions, of an institution, which would drive forward their implementation of these provisions or of sufficient funding.
Anoush der Boghossian, from the WTO Trade and Gender Focal Point pointed out that the crisis was hitting women so hard because, on the one hand women-owned businesses were often small and thereby impacted above average and, on the other hand, women would relatively often work in particular crisis-torn sectors – such as in food production, the fashion and textile industry or in tourism: All sectors, which were also important for international trade. Hence, reasons for her to urge that all government rescue and support packages in connection with the COVID-19 crisis have to include measures to support women.
To be better equipped to assess the impact of trade agreements on women, the EU Commission was making a particular effort to generate reliable data, said Madelaine Tuininga, from the Directorate-General for Trade. Since the EU-South Korea Trade Agreement, all trade agreements would include separate provisions on gender equality. A declaration on the issue was also being drawn up at WTO level.
Right of self-determination as basic requirement
Also invited to join the debate was Evelyn Regner (S&D), Chair Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). She welcomed that the Trade Committee was the first EU Parliament Committee to initiate participation in the Gender Equality Week. In view of the tightening of the in any case extremely strict Abortion Law in Poland, Regner made it clear that the right to self-determination over their own body was a basic requirement to enable women to participate in international trade or other economic activities in the first place.
Women as low-wage workers
According to the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), trade agreements in low-wage countries of the Global South lead – especially in export-oriented sectors – to the fact that work, which requires low qualifications, is disproportionately carried out by women; jobs, which are often associated with low wages, longer working hours and less protection against exploitation. According to the Irish MEP Clare Daly (GUE/NGL), global corporations would deliberately use women in international trade as “cheap labour”, to maximise their own profits.
Hence, from the Chamber of Labour’s point of view, it is therefore important to focus relevant provisions in trade agreements not exclusively on female managing directors – because, as a matter of fact, it is first and foremost female workers and employees who suffer under the negative consequences of trade agreements. If this is being ignored, trade agreements will not lead to improving the situation for the majority of women.