Trade liberalization has created a race to the bottom in wages and labour rights, as countries compete to host manufacturing industries. Since women around the world are concentrated in the lowest-paid and most precarious jobs, they bear the brunt of the impact. Women can also find it harder to take advantage of new opportunities arising from trade.

How do countries ensure that trade agreements don’t exacerbate gender inequality? Oxfam Canada has looked into this question in a new policy paper, Tackling Inequalities in the Global Economy: Making Canada’s Foreign Policy Work for Women

The Canadian government’s approach so far has been to propose stand-alone gender chapters and wording on gender equality, moving the issue from the sidelines to the negotiating table. The updated Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) that was agreed to last summer includes a gender chapter — the first of its kind for a G20 country. (Chile had already agreed to a similar chapter in its free trade agreement with Uruguay.) Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has said Canada will pursue a similar chapter in the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), suggesting that this will be a new standard ask going forward. The government has also indicated that beyond the stand-alone chapter, a gender equality lens will be applied to the whole NAFTA agreement. This step is especially important in the labour chapter of the agreement, given that women are most often responsible for unpaid care and domestic work.

So what can a chapter on gender equality within a trade agreement really achieve? The CCFTA chapter is a good basis for analysis. Framed as a commitment to see that women benefit equally from trade, it references existing women’s rights and gender equality commitments shared by both countries, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The chapter also pledges to set up a trade and gender committee to lead on initiatives such as building women’s networks, improving labour standards and supporting the specific needs of women to help them take advantage of trade.

These are all positive steps for gender equality. But for these commitments to really make a difference, they need political backing, resources and a mandate to drive change. Without these supports, the commitments will remain entirely voluntary and there will be no mechanisms in place to track progress. The intended membership of the trade and gender committee is also unclear. In order to be effective, it must include women’s rights organizations and labour movements, and governments must include commitments to ensure marginalized women are represented.

Beyond these potential challenges, the key weakness of the CCFTA gender chapter is that it falls outside the binding part of the trade agreement, meaning there is no recourse for women who feel their rights are infringed upon by the trading relationship. For gender equality to truly be achieved, countries must ensure that strong language on gender equality is included in all aspects of trade agreements, including those parts that are binding. The inclusion of gender equality language in labour chapters could be particularly useful in this regard, given women’s continuing disadvantages in the workforce.

For gender equality to be achieved, countries must ensure there is strong language on gender equality in all parts of trade agreements, including those that are binding.

Taking a step back from the specifics of free trade agreements, there are additional actions the Canadian government can take to turn feminist talk into action on trade policy.

Decades of research on gender and trade has shown us that different women experience the effects of these policies in different ways. To truly adopt a feminist approach to trade agreements and ensure that they enhance women’s empowerment, it is essential to carry out human rights and gender equality assessments before the deals are agreed to. They can reveal what the expected impacts will be, provide key evidence and guidance for how to mitigate against harmful effects, and determine in what ways women may need support to benefit fully from new economic opportunities.

A recent economic modelling of trade liberalization in the ASEAN region found that sectors where women were concentrated, such as agriculture and manufacturing, were likely to see negative impacts, while those dominated by men, such as technology, were likely to be boosted. Without support for women to move into highly skilled and more secure jobs, gender inequality will be exacerbated by trade deals.

There are several tools Canada can draw on to best assess trade agreements for human rights and gender equality impacts:

  • A poverty and social impact analysis or a gender trade impact assessment would explore the possible gendered impacts and outcomes of an agreement, including looking at a gendered value chain analysis. These should be carried out to inform trade negotiations and through regular review processes to support the design of policies and measures that mitigate harmful effects. For example, assessments would consider the quality of jobs created under an agreement and whether there are opportunities to reduce gendered occupational segregation, or whether women will be further concentrated into certain sectors.
  • An econometric assessment can be carried out using the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Gender and Trade Toolbox. It looks at predicted impacts of trade policy on women and men, using data and economic modelling. Depending on what data are available, this assessment can focus on segments of the economy at individual, household and firm levels, or it can use a computable general equilibrium model, using data from a range of sectors.
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has also published Guiding Principles on Human Rights Impact Assessments of Trade and Investment Agreements, the results of which can be disaggregated by gender. Since the Canada-Chile agreement includes mention of CEDAW — a human rights mechanism focused on women’s rights — carrying out an assessment from this perspective would be particularly important for Canada to ensure that the promises made in any gender chapters are realized.

Regardless of the model deemed most suitable for Canada’s trade deals, the assessments should be well resourced, and their results should always be made public so that civil society can see the findings and make recommendations on how things can be improved. Canada must also tap into the expertise of senior gender experts and ensure that all trade negotiators are adequately trained to analyze how their decisions affect women specifically.

Canada is regaining its place as a global leader on gender equality. But for the self-proclaimed feminist government to truly realize its goal of ensuring that women at home and abroad benefit from the same economic opportunities as men, it must follow through with concrete action.

Photo: Shutterstock, by antoniodiaz.

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Francesca Rhodes
Francesca Rhodes is a women’s rights policy and advocacy specialist at Oxfam Canada.

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