Using Trade Agreements to Support Women Workers

February 06, 2017

We’ve spent the past year focusing on beyond aid approaches to promoting gender equality worldwide, through discussions on how to improve outcomes for women and girls in areas ranging from migration to UN peacekeeping forces. Next we’re looking at how trade agreements can help to ensure they benefit women and men equally, whether they participate in the economy as wage workers, farmers, or entrepreneurs. That might take both carrots and sticks—because, at the moment, women are all too likely to lose out.

On the supply side, the direct beneficiaries of trade skew male: women running their own businesses are disproportionately located in the informal sector and in smaller firms, and few such firms participate in trade. And women employed as wage workers are also less likely to be employed within companies that export: in almost half of exporting companies across 20 developing countries, women made up just 20 percent of those employed.

The issues underlying that disparity go far beyond trade policy—but trade policy can still help address them. Our colleague Kim Elliott recently pointed to the fact that the Global South is leading the way by integrating considerations of gender into trade agreements. The trade agreement between Chile and Uruguay, for example, recognizes gender as a factor impacting workers’ ability to benefit (or not) from trade channels and articulates a commitment to address barriers to women in the workforce. But even these agreements are not backed up by legal requirements or enforcement mechanisms. (One potential exception comes from the East African Community partner states, which have taken a first step towards legally mandating the incorporation of gender considerations into trade policy through a bill introduced earlier this month.)

US trade agreements have included non-discrimination in employment and remuneration clauses since 2007, which places them ahead of recent EU agreements. But there is more to be done on both sides of the Atlantic. It is time to transition from aspirational language to solid commitments and enforcement.

We propose three ideas in our new policy note:

1. Use pre-ratification conditions to incentivize the reform of gender-discriminatory laws

In order for trade to benefit men and women equally, discrimination against women seeking to enter and participate in the workforce must be addressed. One place to start is with legal discrimination: 79 countries legally prevent women from holding certain jobs on the grounds of their sex alone.

Prior to ratifying agreements, trade partners could stipulate the need for partner states to repeal discriminatory laws preventing women from equally benefiting from trade. Similar (non-gender) conditions have been imposed in the past: countries including Morocco, Oman, Chile and Guatemala were required to reform their labor laws before signing trade agreements with the United States.

2. Consider imposing sanctions on sectors that continue to discriminate

If discriminatory laws are not repealed, then countries might refuse to import goods coming from sectors that continue to bar women’s participation. These sanctions would need to be compliant with existing trade treaties.

3. Empower local “watch dogs” to monitor compliance and promote accountability.

The legislation accompanying trade agreements should include funding for local human rights and women’s rights groups, as well as labor unions, capable of keeping a pulse on public and private sector compliance with trade agreements’ terms regarding non-discrimination and holding non-compliers to account.

The intersection of gender and trade is one that under-researched, as trade traditionally has been thought of as “gender neutral.” But women face particular constraints as owners and workers due to their gender. Those negotiating trade agreements need to consider and combat gender disparities in order to ensure that women aren’t losing out on the benefits of trade. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.