Free trade agreements (FTAs) are international treaties between two or more nations that set rules regarding trade and investment.
There is increasing recognition globally that trade deals are almost always rigged in favour of multinational corporations. In effect, they increase the rights of large corporations at the expense of everyday people. We know that free trade has significant negative impacts for women’s rights and gender equality around the world, including undermining women’s access to decent work and public services.
In Australia, we have already entered into 14 FTAs with 7 still under negotiation. One of the most high profile FTAs that Australia has recently entered into is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Globally, there are more than 3000 FTAs.
Australia is currently involved in negotiations for a large new free trade agreement, called the ‘Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’ (RCEP). It is a deal between Australia and 14 other nations, who together account for almost 30% of the global population.
This deal is a major risk for women’s rights and equality in low income countries that are part of it, as well as in Australia.
ActionAid is committed globally to promoting women’s rights and fighting for economic justice for women. In 2019, ActionAid launched an international campaign focusing on women’s decent work, unpaid labour, and access to public services.
In Australia, our campaign is focused specifically on stopping the Australian Government from signing the RCEP trade deal in its current form, as it is likely to undermine women’s access to decent work and public services, and increase their unpaid labour. We are also campaigning for the Australian Government to take gender into account when assessing future trade deals and forming policies around trade.
The longer term goals of this campaign are to influence the Australian Government’s approach to trade, so that the impacts on women’s rights are always taken into account, the harmful parts of trade deals for women and low income countries are taken out, and women are represented in the negotiation process. This approach is known as ‘gender-just trade’.
Free trade agreements like RCEP tip the scale in favour of corporations at the expense of women’s access to decent work and public services, particularly in low income countries.
These deals do this by:
1. Undermining the government’s ability to provide public services like schools and hospitals.
Public services like healthcare, transport, and education are a critical part of ensuring that women’s basic needs are met, and by doing this they enable gender equality. Public services reduce women’s unpaid work and increase their ability to access decent work. For example, if a family member becomes sick, having a quality public hospital nearby can mean the difference between having to take care of the family member while they are sick and being able to work.
Free trade agreements, however, generally require a reduction of tariffs as part of the deal, which reduces government revenue available for public services. In addition, free trade agreements also encourage governments to privatise public services, which often lowers the quality of the service while increasing costs.
2. Threatening women’s access to decent jobs.
Women in low income countries are often smallholder farmers or involved in local businesses, which are hit the hardest when free trade agreements force countries to allow these sectors to be flooded by large multinational corporations. These corporations also often threaten women’s land rights as they buy up large amounts of low cost land for their operations.
At the same time, free trade agreements encourage large multinational companies to open operations in manufacturing work like the garment sector, driving down wages and undermining worker’s rights.
3. Increasing the exploitation of vulnerable groups, especially women migrant workers.
Free trade agreements also often have chapters which increase the amount of temporary migrant workers, generally people who come from low income countries to work in countries of the global north like Australia.
While temporary migration in theory can provide an avenue for women from low income countries to earn higher salaries, in practice these women often end up in poorly paid sectors where they are more vulnerable to exploitation. Asian Women at Work have published research showing that migrant and refugee women working in Australia have been frequently underpaid, received incorrect leave entitlements, were unfairly dismissed, bullied and harassed and suffered from bad health due to their work . And because of the conditions of these temporary worker visas, if women want to leave their employer due to exploitation or rights violations, they often face deportation.
4. Prioritising corporate interests over public good.
A final way that free trade agreements pose a serious threat to women’s access to decent work and public services is through the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) mechanism. This effectively allows multinational corporations to sue governments if the government threatens their profits. We’ll talk more about this below, but in terms of women’s rights – UN experts have noted that governments bound by this clause are less likely to pass laws essential for women’s rights for fear of being sued.
Note: the RCEP doesn’t currently include ISDS, but this will be reassessed two years after the agreement is signed, which means there is a chance it could be incorporated at a later date.
Big trade deals like RCEP can also have negative environmental impacts, and make it harder for governments to respond to climate change, which is disproportionately impacting women around the world.
These deals can contribute to climate change and other environmental issues by encouraging companies to move their manufacturing and polluting activities to countries with lower environmental safeguards.
Some trade deals now include a chapter on the environment that covers some of these issues. In general, however, these chapters don’t contain any binding commitments, and so don’t have any real power to address these concerns. Leaked RCEP texts suggest that the agreement does not include an environment chapter, or any chapters on other social issues such as women’s rights and labour rights.
Wherever you are – in Australia or the world – there are plenty of ways you can take action and help win the campaign to stop RCEP.
- Before you do anything else, make sure you have signed the petition calling on the Australian Government to say no to RCEP.
- Take a photo of yourself with a written message in the format of #NoRCEP – we’ll stitch your photos as part of a giant photo petition to bring the voices of activists from across RCEP countries to the RCEP signing!
- Look into joining your local activist group and find out how you can get involved with the campaign in your community.
- Watch our events page to find out if there is a campaign event happening near you.
- Donate to help power the campaign and make sure we have the resources to run hard-hitting stunts, grow public support across Australia, and use creative tactics to target key decision-makers.
- Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to make sure you’re first to hear all the latest ways to take action on this campaign.