Policy Connection

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

There is a distinct need for a particular focus on the additional negative impacts that women and children face in the name of free trade. ILRF supports the inclusion of anti-discrimination clauses and enforceable labor rights mechanisms.

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

The primacy given to protecting investor’s rights over those of workers under NAFTA has left poor working women in Canada, the U.S., and especially Mexico, without adequate rights and protections. This remained true even after the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) was established to promote the protection and enforcement of basic workers rights, as the NAALC lacked adequate enforcement mechanisms.

In the case of both the US and Canada, NAFTA not only failed in its promise to create high productivity export jobs with better wages, but contributed to pushing more than one million workers out of higher wage jobs and into lower wage positions in non-trade related industries. In the U.S., poor women in apparel industries were particularly hurt, and held two-thirds of jobs that were lost (35,000).(Revisiting NAFTA, still not working for North Americas Workers by Carlos Salas) In Mexico, NAFTA created millions of new formal and informal sector jobs, many of which are occupied by women. However, a significant number of the jobs created have been in the unregulated informal sector, where labor enforcement is virtually non-existent. Even the formal sector jobs produced in the manufacturing industry have been low waged and precarious, and many have ultimately been lost to countries with cheaper labor.

In Mexico, women have been predominant in tthe maquila industry, where they comprise the bulk of the workforce. While access to employment has provided new economic opportunities for poor women, this has come hand in hand with systematic rights violations in the workplace. Social benefits in maquiladoras are virtually non-existent and occupational health and safety regulations are substandard. Wages are almost 40% lower than those paid in heavy non-maquila manufacturing industries, and because of forced mandatory overtime, workers are subject to long and grueling working hours. This becomes particularly difficult for women, who must return home to care for their children and families after work. Mandatory overtime increases a woman’s susceptibility to forced sexual relations with employers and/or to sexual harassment both within and beyond the workplace. Moreover, in maquiladoras pregnancy and urine tests are commonly used as preconditions for continued employment. In addition to threatening a worker’s job security and/or ability to bargain for her rights, these forms of gender-based discrimination can result in serious reproductive health violations for women.

Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)

From the perspective of poor working women, The Central American Free Trade Agreement marked a step backwards from NAFTA. Learn more about why the CAFTA labor provisions cannot offer adequate protections for the rights of workers, especially women workers.

View ILRF Senate Testimony from April 20, 2005 in regards to CAFTA's inadequate language regarding women and workers' rights.

U.S.-Peru and US-Panama Free Trade Agreements

The U.S-Peru and U.S-Panama Free Trade Agreements, while not yet ratified, could be potentially devastating for the rights of working women, especially those employed in the agriculture sector.

Click here to learn more about why you should oppose these agreements

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

The provision of preferential access to US markets, for apparel items under AGOA, has enabled eligible Sub-Saharan countries to develop their national apparel and garment sectors. This has presented women - who comprise up to 75-90% of the thousands of newly created jobs - with new economic and social opportunities and sources of livelihood. However, the success of AGOA from the perspective of women workers and their economic and social rights has been mixed. It is debatable to what extent women working in these industries have made real gains, as the jobs they occupy have been largely low skilled and low paying. Women have been subject to a series of egregious labor rights violations, and the jobs they occupy have not provided wages high enough to lift them out of poverty.

While AGOA recommends that eligible countries establish - or at least make progress towards establishing - mechanisms for the protection of the International Labor Organization’s minimum labor standards, it does not explicitly condition the provision of preferences upon compliance with these standards. As a result, the AGOA labor clause has only been invoked twice and is rarely enforced. Moreover, in spite of the many pro-investment government policies already in place in many Sub-Saharan countries, in countries such as Lesotho for example, companies have lobbied national governments to further extend normal working hours and adopt a piece-rate system in garment factories throughout the country. Policies such as these render obtaining permanent contracts virtually impossible for workers, and automatically reduce the job security and already limited bargaining power working women have to demand fair and living wages.

Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA)

The end of the Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA) in 2005, presented a serious threat to many women workers in formal sector Ready Made Garment (RMG) industries in least developed countries (LDCs). While the MFA was designed to protect the interests of developed country textile markets from big competitors like China and India, it enabled smaller developing countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia to develop formal sector garment industries, which for the first time created employment opportunities for women in the ready made garment industry (RMG). Labor enforcement in the RMG sector, however, falls well below internationally recognized minimum standards. While steps must be taken by both companies and the government to afford workers’ with their rights, women employed in the RMG sector are more likely to enjoy basic rights such as the freedom to associate and bargain collectively than those in Export Processing zones (EPZs) or the wider and more precarious informal economy.

Because women comprise up to 90% of the labor force in the RMG industry, the downsizing or closure of garment factories in the post-MFA environment poses a serious threat to the job security and livelihoods of both women and their families. As the effects of the MFA phase out are fully felt, many more of these workers will be forced to work under increasingly dangerous and unregulated conditions, where they will be subject to greater levels of exploitation and increased poverty.