The European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström will probably hand her office over to the Irishman Phil Hogan on 1st December. It is thanks to her that more light had been shed on the effects of EU foreign trade on women. Now it is up to the new Commissioner to fight against existing inequalities.
International trade with goods and services concerns us all, both in our private life and at work. Hence, it is even more amazing that less than half of all European jobs, which are dependent on trade, are filled by women. According to a current study by the European Commission the exact figure is 38 %. Hence, overall the percentage of women in the trade sector is eight percentage points lower in average compared to the total activity in the reviewed countries. According to the European Commission, over 13.5 million women living in the EU are working in jobs, which are dependent on EU foreign trade.
Nevertheless, European trade policy and its effect are often understood as gender neutral; however, the widely differing positive or negative influences, which international trade has on men and women, mainly depend on the sectors they are working in. The main working areas of female employees in Europe with a connection to EU foreign trade are in administration, supporting services and in wholesale. Even though the number of low-qualified jobs has decreased in favour of higher-qualified jobs, two thirds of female employees are still working in the medium to low-qualified sector. The study of the European Commission too confirms that access to high-qualified jobs is more difficult for women than for men. Even though compared to women in other sectors, European women employed in trade earn 13 % higher salaries, compared to their male colleagues they still earn 4 % less. Hence, the gender pay gap also exists here, even if it smaller than in other sectors.
According to the European Trade Union Institute, women in the Global South are even more disproportionally negatively affected: in low-wage countries, many trade agreements often lead exactly in export sectors, which require few qualifications, to a feminisation of jobs, which only too often are associated with a lower salary, longer working hours and exploitation. In Bangladesh for example, 80 % of textile workers are female, very young and without trade union support - and thereby not protected against dangerous working conditions. At the same time, the number of women is lower in more technical production stages with better conditions and salaries. As early as 2017, the European Parliament had devoted time to the issue of “gender blind” trade agreements and demanded to increase the focus on the gender perspective. This was addressed in the current trade agreement negotiations between the EU and Chile, which resulted in the inclusion of a specific section on promoting gender equality in the Sustainability Chapter. However, the International Labour Organisation ILO points out that even if the number of jobs was rising, it would be far from certain that these would be created on the basis of the trade agreements or would even result in appropriate conditions and wages.
From the AK’s point of view, it has to be viewed critically that many of the efforts of the EU Commission are not aimed at female workers and employees, hence the majority of the women affected, but that the focus is on female entrepreneurs. During the “Trade for her” event of the Directorate-General Trade, which took place in September 2019, it had been emphasised on several occasions that small and medium-sized enterprises had to be strengthened by trade agreements as these would also strengthen female entrepreneurs associated with trade. In doing so, the reality of life of female non-managers of SMEs was completely ignored, even though at 38 % they stand for the majority of the percentage of women in ETU foreign trade. To ignore the reality of life of the majority of women in Europe and the Global South in trade agreements leads to significant negative effects for women: poor working conditions, exploitation, lack of safety standards and damage to health as well as unfair salaries, lack of career opportunities and increasing inequality within countries and industries.
Hence, there remains a lot to do to structure European trade policy for women in Europe in a way, which is equal to men and even more in respect of giving women in partner countries the same opportunities. One can only hope that the future Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan will drive this issue forward. He at least emphasised during his Hearing that he wanted to address gender equality in and through trade.