Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Trade Is a Women's Issue

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Trade Is a Women's Issue

Article excerpt

Key Points

* Global trade's profits rely on the labor of women workers worldwide, as women make up more than half the work force in the light manufacturing industries that provide most of the world's household goods.

* Women workers face a host of problems including low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions, harassment, sexual abuse, and discrimination.

* Trade negotiators have begun to discuss women's issues but are still a long way from developing practical protections for women workers.

From coffee to computers, women workers provide the labor that creates the goods that appear in the world's supermarkets and department stores. Women workers are good for trade, but is trade good for women workers? U.S. and global trade rules have a long way to go before they will provide women with the protections needed to ensure even basic and decent workplaces.

Trade liberalization and the rise of export-oriented industries rely on female wage labor, particularly in manufacturing. The World Development Report estimates that women constitute 70-90% of workers in export processing zones (EPZs) worldwide. In agricultural industries, women make up approximately 43% of the formally documented agricultural work force, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FAO studies note that when including informal participation in this sector, particularly in developing countries, women may produce well over half of the world's food. In short, the world's consumers rely on female labor.

In fifty years of global trade negotiations, some things have changed. At least women's issues have finally made it onto the trade and diplomatic agenda. As a result of the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, the Clinton administration established an Interagency Task Force on Women, with a separate high-level working group on Women in the Global Economy.

By the late 1990s, it was not unusual to find trade negotiators sitting down with women's rights organizations to hear their concerns. For example, the regional trade group Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), consisting of 21 member "economies," held ministerial meetings on women's issues in 1997, 1998, and 1999. However, such consultations have not translated into bargaining proposals, and women's rights organizations are increasingly allied with labor and environmental groups in citing the fundamental failure of trade to benefit the world's poor. A convening of women NGOs from throughout Asia declared that "women oppose globalization" in Malaysia in 1999. …

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