Australia is about to sign on to a new mega-trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). But what does this mean for the rights of 1.1 billion women and girls who live in the 15 countries involved in the deal?
Earlier this month Scott Morrison and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham headed to the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok to sign off on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 15 other countries in the Asia and Pacific region; a trade deal that was set to cover half the world’s population. While the deal was purportedly agreed, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would not be joining saying: “When I measure the RCEP Agreement with respect to the interests of all Indians, I do not get a positive answer. Therefore, neither the talisman of Gandhiji nor my own conscience permit me to join RCEP”.
Modi also cited concerns about the impact on the dairy industry which had been vocal about the negative impacts the RCEP would have on local jobs and livelihoods. The dairy industry in India is almost exclusively run by cooperatives. The largest cooperative, Amul, involves 3 million women producers and vendors and has been celebrated for the poverty alleviation and economic independence it provides to women.
The right-wing Modi government, backed by billionaires like the Adani and Ambani families, are far from champions for the working class or for women’s human rights. Yet it may be Indian women who benefit most from India’s withdrawal. Whereas, if the other 15 countries go ahead with the agreement in 2020, we can expect gender inequalities to grow throughout the region.
While the text of the deal is still secret (a process that has been described as a violation of international human rights law by UN experts), we know from experience that free trade agreements, like the RCEP, increase inequalities and make life even worse for women in low-income countries already struggling to make ends meet.
Modern trade agreements are only marginally about trade and tariffs. The RCEP includes 20 chapters many of which go ‘beyond the border’ and set economic rules. In short, modern trade agreements are designed to do one thing – make it easier for foreign corporations to invest and profit.
Public services that women rely on harmed
Public services are great equalisers; they are essential in reducing gender inequalities and supporting people living in poverty. Free trade agreements like the RCEP reduce revenue for countries to fund public services and increase the pressure to corporatise or privatise public services.
Trade-in-services chapters and investment provisions require all services (unless explicitly excluded) to be opened up to foreign investment. Even when services are provided by the government or state owned enterprises, they must effectively act as if they are a corporation and compete with foreign investors. Public services like education, healthcare, energy, water, childcare, aged care, public media are then treated as commodities, rather than as public services.
When education is free, more girls go to school. When water and electricity are publicly available, women spend less time collecting water and fuel. When healthcare is free, fewer women die in childbirth, more women can access reproductive health services and they have support when caring for sick or elderly family members.
Trade agreements also prevent governments from returning privatised services to the public. When privatisation has failed and governments have sought to ensure people get access to their basic right to water or energy, they have been sued, costing some governments hundreds of millions, even billions from the public purse and so putting even more pressure on the government to privatise.
Regulations necessary for gender equality reduced
To add to the problems, trade agreements reduce regulations necessary for a fair society. Trade agreements have ‘standstill’ and ‘ratchet’ provisions that stop new regulations on investors being introduced and progressively reduce existing regulations over time.
But regulations are necessary – for protecting the environment, for ensuring fair labour rights, for making sure corporations are not using dangerous chemicals or materials, for making sure there are enough staff in aged care, childcare, education or healthcare.
In many areas we clearly need more regulation not less. We need more regulations to stop corporations avoiding taxes and to stop banks exploiting customers, for example. To reduce gender inequalities a committed government could decide to increase the amount of superannuation for women, make companies pay women for the historical wage gaps that leave more women in retirement poverty, require large companies to provide onsite childcare or force companies to take responsibility for their supply chains and ban imports if exploitation is part of their business model.
Foreign companies could argue that these contravene trade rules. It’s happened before. The South African government was forced to reduce affirmative action provisions in the Black Economic Empowerment law because of trade agreements.
It is likely that our government has traded away the right to regulate in areas where we don’t even know yet what regulations are needed. The new eCommerce chapter will stop governments from regulating data flows. That means governments can’t require data companies to have a local presence, to make them store data in the country, limit the way they financialise our data, or be required to disclose algorithms that could be discriminatory. We know some companies are already using apps that track women’s fertility and can tell an employer if she is pregnant. Unions, or even the Human Rights Commission, won’t be able to access that data to prove discrimination has happened.
Corporations given more power
While trade agreements reduce regulations on companies, they conversely increase protections for companies. Japan and Korea pushed for increased monopoly protections for big pharmaceutical companies that would delay the availability of cheaper generic medicines, particularly in low income countries where they are urgently needed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that access to affordable medicines is particularly important for women because women, on average, have less money to pay for medicines and require pharmaceuticals more often.
Similarly, some countries want to include provisions in the RCEP to make seed sharing illegal, hitting women harder because they represent the majority of the world’s small holder farmers. Many of these women share the seeds they collect with other farmers through community driven seed banks, and they have never had to pay for seed. The intellectual property chapter may contain a requirement for signatory countries to sign an agreement that prevents farmers from sharing seeds or plants and requires governments to make the practice illegal.
Women’s working conditions harmed
The RCEP could threaten women’s access to decent work and a living wage. Trade agreements are designed to facilitate greater market competition and a freer flow of capital – capital that is searching for the cheapest labour. But this pushes wages down not just in signatory countries, but everywhere, as countries try to compete by lowering wages and reducing protections for workers.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provides a cautionary tale. After it was signed large amounts of US investment flowed into border towns like Ciudad Juarez where sweatshops or “Maquiladoras” boomed, supposedly offering women work opportunities. Labour productivity and exports grew initially, but wages decreased by 20 percent between 1994 and 2011. At the same time violence against women in the city increased. Free trade off the back of women’s cheap and exploitative labour is an unacceptable price to pay.
Procurement chapters in trade agreements stop governments from using their power in the economy as the single largest buyer, to buy local, to support the growth of new industries or to buy from groups that are otherwise marginalised in the economy. During the RCEP negotiations the Indian government said that “India gives preferences in government procurement to a number of categories within the country such as the small-scale sector and women entrepreneurs. If it gives market access commitments to other RCEP members, it may stand to lose the freedom to give preferences to domestic interest groups.”
The potential adverse impact trade agreements can have on women’s human rights is being recognised around the world. In 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on gender equality in trade agreements that recognises the potential negative impacts and requires the EU to conduct gender impact assessments, amongst other actions. A similar recommendation was made during the Senate Inquiry into the Pacific trade agreement, PACER Plus, but has not been actioned.
For a government that has sought to champion gender equality globally, Australia has yet to show any serious interest in recognising the potential negative impacts of trade policies on gender (or human rights, health, environment and labour), or take steps to systematically assess these. A gender equitable trade policy is possible. But it would look nothing like the RCEP.
Kate Lappin is the Asia Pacific Regional Secretary of Public Services International, the global union federation representing more than 20 million workers delivering public services worldwide.
Michelle Higelin is the Executive Director of ActionAid Australia, which is part of a global federation working in 45 countries working to campaign against unjust trade and tax policies that drive gender inequality and deepen poverty.