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FTAA Ignores Harm To Women From Previous Trade Pacts

by Ushani Agalawatta

(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- The Bush administration has been given failing grades for its treatment of women's issues in talks to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) accord.

The administration's rhetoric was given an 'F' while its actions were scored 'I' -- incomplete -- in the 'Global Women's Issues Scorecard' released Nov. 12.

The first scorecard published in August before World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Cancun included analysis of the administration's proposals on agricultural subsidies and their impact on women farmers in developing countries. The Scorecard issued a 'C' for rhetoric and an 'F' for actions.

"In the WTO discussions, there was at least some recognition that trade policies affect women and men differently and an understanding of women's critical role in food production," said June Zeitlin of the Women's Environmental Development Organization (WEDO) one of the groups scoring the administration.

"Yet, in all the FTAA discussions so far we have been unable to find any direct reference ... to women's concerns or the specific impact on women, either in the market or in the home."

Modelled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada and Mexico, the FTAA is considered by the administration of President George W. Bush a program for hemispheric development.

Yet opposition is growing to the plan to integrate the markets of 34 nations in the Americas -- excluding socialist Cuba -- both developing and developed economies.

Led by Brazil, South American governments in particular are insisting that Washington drop its support for U.S. farmers, unlikely in the upcoming election year, and keep issues like patent protection and foreign investment to discussions within the WTO.

In May, the Scorecard quoted Bush on agricultural subsidies and the WTO. "We must also give farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia ... a fair chance to compete in world markets. When wealthy nations subsidize their agricultural exports, it prevents poor countries from developing their own agricultural sectors," the U.S. president said.

"So I propose that all developed nations ... immediately eliminate subsidies on agricultural exports to developing countries so that they can produce more food."

Ironically, the 2002 Farm Bill raised U.S. farm subsidies by 80 percent to $100 billion.

"Massive increases in U.S. farm subsidies in the 2002 Farm Bill belie Bush administration rhetoric backing lower agricultural subsidies, fair trade and reducing the number of people living in poverty -- the majority of whom are women," said the Scorecard.

Although Washington has not spelled out how it believes the FTAA would affect women, the Scorecard quotes U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick saying, "free trade and openness benefits everyone and provides opportunity, prosperity and hope to all our peoples."

Zeitlin told reporters Wednesday in a conference call, "while the administration touts the economic benefits of FTAA as improving living conditions throughout Latin America, they offer little evidence to back up their claim."

"Indeed, women's experience under NAFTA, particularly poor women, has been to the contrary."

Joining Zeitlin in the telephone media briefing was Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority and Jodi Jacobson of the Centre for Health and Gender Equity. They vowed to take part in demonstrations in Miami next week, where trade ministers will hold talks on the proposed FTAA.

Zeitlin said free trade has cost thousands of jobs and marginalized workers in the United States and abroad. Although plant closings and displacement of workers might not be news, the news is that benefits for workers in Latin America and the Caribbean are non-existent, Zeitlin said.

"Let's take the example of the export processing zones or maquiladoras, which employ primarily women in Mexico and Central America."

"Despite working very long hours, the majority of women workers still live in poverty because jobs in the maquiladoras provide very low pay, and generally no benefits and few health and safety protections despite often dangerous working conditions," she said.

Many observers point out that many of these processing operations have moved to China where wages are even lower.

"The FTAA would expand the reach of NAFTA, bringing low-wage jobs with no real protections for workers' rights for the rest of the hemisphere," says the International Gender and Trade Network.

"Women workers need trade policies that protect their rights as women and as workers and improve their living conditions ... A fair trade alternative to the current U.S. proposal would include mechanisms to ensure that workers' rights and environmental protections are being improved in trading nations, not undermined," adds the group's website.

Women's groups are further worried by the FTAA call to open up the provision of public services to the "free market."

"This could open up education and health services to private sector competitors," said Zeitlin.

"While the approach may seem 'efficient' there is already a substantial body of evidence that it doesn't work ... Privatisation of basic needs such as water and health care has led to price increases and denial of access to the poor."

"FTAA will encourage the shift of authority away from government and to the private sector for those very services that women and girls depend on," she added.

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Albion Monitor November 17, 2003 (

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