When Justin Trudeau and his foreign secretary Chrystia Freeland laid out their core objectives for the new negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), second on their list was to make the 23-year-old trade agreement “more progressive.” That means strengthening its labour rights provisions and introducing an unprecedented new chapter on gender equality.
Trudeau may have his work cut out for him. Donald Trump is not known for his feminism. And he’s been a vocal opponent of the free trade deal between Canada, the US and Mexico, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. “NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere,” he said in a presidential debate. On several occasions, he has threatened to terminate it.
But if the new negotiations now taking shape do result in a deal, the inclusion of new gender provisions is, in fact, more than possible.
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“It’s slightly less unlikely than it might sound, because the White House remains somewhat keen to look like it’s doing things on women’s economic empowerment,” said Charles Kenny, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development. One of the first joint engagements between the Trudeau and Trump governments in Washington was around female entrepreneurs and building a joint women’s business council.
Trudeau could succeed in bringing a feminist lens to the new NAFTA. The real question is whether any new gender provisions are substantive — or just window-dressing.
In principle, a feminist trade agenda could have radical global economic ramifications.
It could mean putting sanctions on imports from countries or sectors where women face particularly egregious legal blocks to equal labour force participation, “like those we used to have against South Africa under apartheid — only around gender apartheid,” said Kenny. In many countries, for instance, women are banned from working in the mining sector: gender sanctions would discriminate against those imports.
Trade agreements could also write in new binding rights for female workers such as minimum wages for garment workers, which might mean pricier clothes for the developed world.
Feminist trade could even mean cancelling arms deals with Saudi Arabia, an issue that has been hotly debated in Sweden, whose feminist foreign policy Canada is often seen as emulating.
Liam Swiss, a sociology professor at Canada’s Memorial University, said that the Trudeau government’s authorisation of a “massive arms deal” with the Saudis has brought criticism and charges of incoherence in Canada. “If we look at the impact on women and children, boys, girls in Yemen, even the status of women in Saudi Arabia, there’s all sorts of arguments for why you wouldn’t make that decision if you had a truly feminist foreign and trade policy.”
Canada’s first go at feminist trade was its 2017 renegotiation of the Chile trade deal.
That included the first ever gender chapter in a trade pact between OECD countries, a chapter framed as a commitment to ensure women benefit equally from trade.
In some countries, such as Bangladesh, the competitiveness of export industries like clothing and textiles depends on the low wages, insecurity and labour rights’ violations of marginalised female workers. Women also work in different sectors to men. A UN economic model of the ASEAN region found that women-dominated sectors, like agriculture, would likely see negative impacts of trade liberalisation, but those dominated by men, like tech, would see benefits. And just one in five of the world’s exporting firms is led by a female entrepreneur, showing that women face barriers to starting and scaling their own businesses.
The Canada-Chile chapter takes on some of these issues. Both countries agree that including women and girls is key to long-term economic development. They reaffirm their commitments to international gender rights agreements. And they promise to set up a committee to share best practices, including building women’s networks and improving labour rights.
But unlike the rest of the deal, there’s no binding mechanism to hold the two countries to account. “Is that gender chapter particularly strong and biting, no — a step in the right direction, yes,” said Kenny.
And experts see another drawback: a lack of sex-disaggregated data or method for assessing the chapter’s impact. According to Francesca Rhodes, a gender specialist at Oxfam Canada, Canada should conduct gender impact assessments of its trade policies. “At the moment we don’t really have that gender data,” she said, meaning that policies are being designed in the dark.
Similar concerns would apply to any potential gender section in the new NAFTA, said Laura Macdonald, Professor of Political Economy at Carleton University. “There’s very little analysis of what NAFTA has done in general to the three countries’ economies, and certainly not gender-based analysis.” And, she added, there is a lack of capacity in the respective countries’ trade ministries to do it.
Nonetheless, Canada’s bringing gender onto the trade agenda represents a significant step in drawing attention to the unequal impact of trade.
It is part of Canada’s broader gender-sensitive approach to international affairs, the most well-known part of which is the feminist international assistance policy, under which development projects must now pass gender equity requirements to get Canadian money.
But the money and numbers of people involved in and affected by international trade are far larger than foreign aid. Today, trade among just the US, Canada and Mexico, the three NAFTA countries, exceeds $1 trillion. International development aid for the entire world, by contrast, hit a peak in 2016 of just $142.6 billion.
According to Swiss, a feminist focus on trade, investment and migration would have a far greater impact than a focus on feminist aid. ”Those forces are just way bigger in the global scheme of things,” he said.
The end of arms deals as we know them may not be on the horizon. But, with its new focus on gender, from Chile to the White House, Canada has opened an important conversation about women and trade at the international level. Where that conversation will go remains to be answered.
(Picture credit: Asian Development Bank)