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The gender wage gaps have persisted or widened on account of trade liberalization. Photo: iStock
The gender wage gaps have persisted or widened on account of trade liberalization. Photo: iStock

Making international trade gender-fair 

The WTO's decision to collect gender data will buttress existing academic evidence, which shows that trade has an impact on women in multiple ways

With rising protectionism and a looming tariff war, multilateral and bilateral trade agreements are under threat. Their rules-based arrangements must be defended, including a relatively recent addition to discourse in free trade agreements (FTAs) as well as multilateral declarations—gender. 

The Buenos Aires World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in late 2017 had a declaration on gender and trade, which India voted against. Several of India’s important trading partners such as Canada as well as the European Union (EU) have championed provisions on gender in their FTAs. 

Commentators, including columnists in this paper, have argued that the “fixation" in FTAs with ostensibly progressive issues such as gender is linked to an attempt to standardize regulations across borders, introducing protectionist barriers, and it is “patronizing" to be dictated on matters of gender (goo.gl/N5xWZB). India’s argument for voting against the WTO declaration was that while India “promotes gender issues", WTO was not the appropriate forum to discuss them. Several international women’s organizations also opposed the declaration, terming it a “pink herring" that diverted attention from other crucial issues ailing global trade rules and structural inequalities they perpetuate. Gender-related provisions in bilateral FTAs as well as multilateral declarations therefore merit closer examination.

Canada and the EU have advocated gender inclusivity in trade, by including gender chapters in their FTAs. The recent Chile-Canada FTA’s chapter on trade and gender provides a framework for the development of gender-focused indicators and commits both sides to share experiences in designing programmes to encourage women’s participation. In the EU-Mexico global agreement and the EU-Africa, Caribbean and Pacific group partnership agreement, gender equality is regarded as a cross-cutting issue to be mainstreamed in development cooperation between the parties.

These provisions are not legally enforceable (they do not contain specific milestones, nor do the dispute resolutions mechanisms apply to them), but the presence of language on cooperation on gender issues can have a significant signalling effect on trading partners.

To the argument that “progressive issues" cloak protectionist measures—it is useful to note that research on gender and trade could indicate the removal of barriers in trade. For instance, surveys by the International Trade Centre have shown that as women-owned business tend to be smaller, they are disproportionately affected by non-tariff measures (NTMs) such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recommended the removal of NTMs on this account. 

Dani Rodrik, the leading cautionary voice on trade, in his 2018 paper What Do Trade Agreements Really Do, demonstrates that FTAs do indeed push for harmonization, but this is on account of patent rules, health and safety regulations, and  investor courts, which empower politically connected firms. Gender-related provisions do not provide for harmonization, but are simply an acknowledgement of trade’s impact on gender and a mutual commitment to address it.

This is, in fact, what the WTO declaration enjoined countries to do: make trade policies gender-responsive by sharing information regarding women’s participation through voluntary reporting, collecting gender-disaggregated data, sharing best practices for conducting gender analysis of trade policies and monitoring their effect. 

The WTO’s decision to collect gender-disaggregated data will buttress existing academic evidence which shows that trade has an impact on women in multiple ways. United Nations 2015 report “Transforming Economies Realising Rights" shows that the jobs created for women by trade liberalization are concentrated in lowest-paid and most insecure segments of global value chains, where women work as temporary or seasonal workers. Therefore, gender wage gaps—both absolute measures and the proportion of the gap attributable to discrimination—have persisted or widened on account of trade liberalization, according to E. Braunstein and M. Houston’s 2016 paper on Pathways Towards Sustainability In The Context Of Globalization: A Gendered Perspective On Growth, Macro Policy, And Employment. Jayati Ghosh’s research shows that women seem to lose their initial advantages as industries upgrade, leading to a defeminization of employment in manufacturing. The University of Minnesota highlights research that shows that US tariffs disproportionately hurt poorer women (goo.gl/YKc2d6). 

The provisions of the declaration on collecting gender-disaggregated data seek to bridge the information asymmetries with regard to the impact of trade on women’s employment, wages, livelihoods and access to public goods in order to inform and improve gender-related allocative inefficiencies of trade policies.

The declaration is recognition by the WTO that global trade conducted under its aegis has failed half the world’s population and attempts to find out how. The actions the declaration advances, in fact, afford an opportunity to correct the distortions caused by WTO’s rules. 

There is a gender dimension to trade and India should not be blind to it, whether in bilateral FTAs or multilateral fora. 

Richa Roy is a finance and public policy lawyer who has advised governments on trade, investment, insolvency law and financial regulation.

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