Last week, a joint meeting of the European Parliament’s Trade and Women’s Committee discussed the extent to which EU trade policy has an impact on gender inequality. The findings are mixed. It has, however, become clear that trade policy is not gender-neutral, but usually gender-blind. And this is exactly what should be changed in the future.
The EU concludes many trade agreements with different countries for various purposes. Following the adoption of the CETA agreement with Canada at EU level, agreements are currently being negotiated with Japan, China, Mercosur, Mexico and Chile. These contracts also have a large impact on the inhabitants of the participating Member States. They might impact employment in some sectors or might change the prices of certain products. In many cases, however, these agreements lead to more deregulation and privatisation of public services. At the same time, national initiatives are restricted by a prohibition of protectionism. The consequences of the trade agreements for the population of the countries concerned are diverse and vary according the the initial situation, for example with regard to the country's wage level and existing structural social inequalities: trade agreements do not act in a vacuum.
Up to now, trade agreements in the EU are formulated 'gender-neutral'. Hence, they do not put a particular focus on whether and how they potentially affect women and men differently by considering existing inequalities. However, this also means that these agreements are ‘gender-blind’ as rapporteurs Malin Björk and Eleonora Forenza of the GUE / NGL Group state. A report on gender equality in EU trade agreements is now being discussed on the initiative of the European Parliament. Last week, experts, together with a representative of the Commission, debated the issue at a joint meeting of the relevant committees.
Trade itself is neither good nor bad. However, according to Marzia Fontana, University of London (SOAS), the impact of trade policy depends on its specific design. Unless private providers in social care and health care can be resorted to, the liberalisation of public services in high-wage countries often leads to the fact that especially women have to take over these tasks due to stereotypical roll-out claims. Based on this, Gea Meijers of WIDE+ emphasises that gender-specific dimensions of trade policy should not only be discussed with regard to women entrepreneurs or SMEs with female managers. In low-wage countries trade agreements often lead to a feminization of employment, which is all too often associated with smaller salaries, longer working hours and exploitation, especially in export sectors that require little qualifications. Particularly, in countries of the Global South many women work in smaller farms, as explained by Mariama Williams from the Think Tank South Centre. If they lose their competitiveness on the basis of agreements with the EU and the subsequent liberalisation of trade women workers are especially affected.
Standards on how to sufficiently take into account gender in trade agreements are not yet available. However, the large number of free trade agreements that are currently under negotiation makes these urgently necessary. The experts have proposed to extend the Trade and Sustainability Chapter to include the respective ILO conventions, such as ILO Convention 189 on household workers, Convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities or CEDAW.
Alternatively, the creation of a separate chapter has been suggested. Gender-specific effects should, however, be considered in all steps – from the preparation to the evaluation of the agreements. Particularly in the case of commitments for liberalisation, it has to be ensured that the social and economic rights of women and socially disadvantaged groups are respected. Public procurement and quotas must be explicitly made possible in order to counteract imbalances on the part of the state without breaching the agreement. States should also not be afraid to be sued by large companies because of gender equality policies they implement.
From the Commission’s point of view, it must be ensured that trade is actually benefiting the entire population, as the global strategy of ‘trade for all’ strives for. A gender perspective in trade agreements is therefore necessary and it is already being considered to apply gender specific dimensions in the Chile Agreement, according to Tomas Baert, the Commission’s representative. On 20th June, the Commission plans to organise its own forum on women and trade.