Women in the Commonwealth: Trade and Investment

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:55 pm on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:55 pm, 11th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to Theo Clarke for securing this important debate and for the way she approached the topic. I think she will find there is a great deal of overlap between us; perhaps some cross-party collaboration beckons. I pay tribute to Wendy Chamberlain for her remarks about period poverty and the potential of trade for tackling it. I also enjoyed the speech by Anne McLaughlin. Her description of the marriage terminator was an education, but I also welcome her emphasis on the value of education in bringing about gender equality.

As others said, it is timely that we have International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day together this week. It is right that we should use this opportunity, as the hon. Member for Stafford said, to discuss how we use the tools and policy measures at our disposal to advance our efforts to ensure equality for women, including through our trade agreements with Commonwealth partners.

Trade has the potential to bring great economic empowerment to the world’s poorest countries, and specifically to women and others in more vulnerable groups. However, not all trade and investment policy measures are economically empowering for women. A careful balance must therefore be struck for trade policy to be effective. The World Trade Organisation and the World Bank have found that although women play a vital role in the economy, they face additional obstacles to participating in international trade. We should seek to overcome those barriers if we want women’s potential to be fulfilled.

We welcome trade agreements that elevate rights and standards and that are at the forefront of global initiatives to secure the economic empowerment of women. However, as the WTO and the World Bank have identified, gender-biased laws and procurement processes, and difficulties in accessing finance, are challenges to women’s ability to benefit from international trade. Those two institutions also point out that gender-biased environments generally mean that women face a variety of extra challenges, such as in acquiring necessary knowledge, or being in charge of or involved with companies large enough for the extra costs of trade to be incorporated at scale.

In countries where women’s socioeconomic positions are particularly precarious, trade can of course offer important routes to their social and economic empowerment, and trade agreements can create decent work opportunities for women. However, far too often they have been a source of further exploitation. Some trade agreements result in women finding themselves trapped in low-wage jobs and dangerous working environments, which we all wish to avoid.

Well-regulated, unionised jobs for men and women in one country being lost as they are relocated overseas, often to markets without those protections, is a potential downside of a trade agreement that is not well thought through. Poorly designed trade policy can therefore fail to deliver coherent ways of improving women’s rights and economic status. At worst, it can harm the rights of women—particularly those from poor and marginalised communities.

Civil society campaign groups in the Commonwealth have highlighted that bad trade policy can lead to jobs with low wages and poor working conditions for women—effectively a race to the bottom rather than, to use the Government’s favourite phrase, the levelling up that we all wish to see. Bad trade policy may result in women’s livelihoods being put at risk, and the interests of private companies and investors being prioritised over commitments to women’s rights. It can also lead to inadequate provision of quality public services and infrastructure, such as education, which are vital to give women an equal chance to participate in the market, redress their unpaid care work and tackle violence against women and girls.

But there is good news: there are ways of making this work. The joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment at the 11th World Trade Organisation ministerial conference helpfully identified some things for future discussion. I hope that the Minister is aware of those things and has taken them to heart, but I will remind him of them anyway. There were five key recommendations: sharing respective experiences relating to policies and programmes that encourage women’s participation in national and international economies; sharing best practice for conducting gender-based analysis of trade policies and monitoring; sharing methods and procedures for the collection of gender-disaggregated data—so often in gender equality work, just having the data makes for a huge step forward—and the use of indicators, monitoring and evaluation methodologies so we can analyse gender-focused trade statistics and work out whether we are doing anything good; working together in the WTO to remove barriers to women’s economic empowerment and increase their participation; and ensuring that aid for trade really supports the tools and know-how to analyse, design and implement gender-responsive trade policies. Future discussions alone are not enough. If trade agreements proceed as usual and lock in liberalisation measures, they set back efforts to improve labour standards and workplace rights, and they disadvantage women. I am sure that none of us wants that.

Not enough is being done to determine the gender impacts of trade agreements at the outset, let alone any subsequent review post ratification. Will the Minister set out what representations the UK intends to make at the upcoming 12th ministerial conference on gender and trade?

The SheTrades Commonwealth scheme, which was launched by the former Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London in 2018, has been cautiously welcomed by campaign groups and civil society organisations. There is caution, however, because such initiatives invariably focus on channelling support to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. That is good, but they are often target-driven, and much of the funding is ultimately directed towards well-connected and wealthy figures in developing countries, without any measurement of or focus on the benefits for other women. Those schemes may well have the noble intention of ensuring that women are better represented in global trade, and that is a good thing, but it is not enough if they fail to address the wider structural issues that are often reinforced by trade policy architecture.

Similarly, the Commonwealth connectivity agenda has been heralded as an additional tool to address how digital solutions can be used to empower women and unlock economic opportunities for them. Of course, that is worthwhile, but we have to tackle the underlying structural issues. The outcome statement of the 2018 Commonwealth Women’s Forum, which took place alongside the business forum, should be commended for recognising that trade policy could be used to leverage economic empowerment for women and encourage ratification of the International Labour Organisation conventions. Those involved in the forum call on the Commonwealth Heads of Government to

“create an enabling macroeconomic environment…Call on Heads to lead global action on developing and implementing gender responsive trade policies and economic development in collaboration with women…Call on Heads to address the systematic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the economy…Commit to extending employment regulations and social and legal protection to cover women workers in the formal and informal economy…Call on Heads to recognise the economic value of unpaid care work”,

without which women will continue to be doubly disadvantaged. Even that does not go far enough to identify the negative potential impact of trade liberalisation measures that are drawn up without due attention to gender; nor does it include recommendations for how to proceed with binding obligations on all parties.

Echoing what the hon. Member for Stafford said, I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s priorities for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In 2018, the International Trade Committee heard much evidence on how trade policy unfairly affects women and what measures might be considered a step forward—the Minister might want to refer to that at CHOGM. The woman from the Gender and Development Network gave evidence about significant economic and social disadvantage, including unemployment, low pay and poor working conditions. She also highlighted how poorly thought-through free trade agreements can drive down labour standards. Again, that is not what we want. ActionAid noted in its evidence that women face economic discrimination at every level, and women in developing countries could be at least $9 trillion better off if their pay and access to paid work were equal to men’s.

The introduction of specific gender chapters in free trade agreements, such as that in the Canada-Chile free trade agreement, has been commended as breaking positive new ground. Such agreements have the potential to build on existing global commitments, such as the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and to provide for the establishment of trade and gender committees to oversee the application of aspects of a free trade agreement. However, such chapters often do not contain binding obligations or enforcement measures, so they have been described by the UN conference on trade and development as “light touch.”

The Labour party committed in its manifesto to ensuring that trade policy respects workers’ rights, not just domestically but abroad. That includes accountability for global supply chains. It also involves ensuring that women workers in the Commonwealth who produce goods for our market are in decent jobs with decent wages, safe working conditions and union rights, and that they are safe from sexual harassment and violence. We should not be in the business of offshoring exploitative conditions.

Many UK companies source goods from the global south and the Commonwealth, which has created many jobs in sectors that employ women, such as garments and agriculture. However, it is important to ensure that the jobs that are created have safe working conditions and pay a living wage. If we are to design a trade policy that genuinely promotes women’s rights and encourages women’s greater representation and participation in trade and investment across the Commonwealth, we must address the structural challenges. To ensure that trade policy in the Commonwealth is in line with women’s rights, the Government must carry out gender and social impact assessments prior to all new trade agreements—and I mean all of them. The debate is about the Commonwealth, but we should do the same for all trade agreements.

The Government’s response to the International Trade Committee report, in which they which committed to publishing gender-specific reviews and scoping assessments with trade agreements, is welcome. However, if Parliament does not have a properly defined role in scrutinising and debating those agreements, I worry that we will not be able to hold the Government to account on them.

Trade agreements can affect the public services that women rely on for their social protection, displace local jobs through surges of cheap imports and undermine working conditions. They can also do the opposite, and we could decide that we want to do the opposite. In the discussion about women’s economic empowerment, if we get it wrong and continue to overlook the aspects of trade agreements that stand to do the most damage, we risk making women’s lives worse. If we get it right, there is a good possibility that we can make women’s lives much better and assist with women’s economic empowerment in the Commonwealth. I hope that the Minister will address some of what Members have said.