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By Kristin Dawkins

Globalization of the economy, a phenomenon that paralleled the explosive growth of transnational corporations over the past two decades, has had devastating consequences for people all around the world, especially for women. While the consequences are familiar, their connection to the international trade and investment policies that have produced them are not widely understood, particularly in the North.

The governments of many Southern countries see export-oriented agriculture as their only route to the global economy. The historical record of what happens to traditional peasant economies when they are converted from food self-sufficiency to cash crops for export has been repeated in country after country.

  • The producer role shifts from women to men.
  • Less food is planted, food becomes scarce, food prices rise, and increasing amounts of cash are needed to feed families.
  • Child care suffers due to mothers working away from the household to earn cash income and nutrition declines as mothers turn to packaged foods.
  • The woman's cash income is easily diverted to non-food items by other family members.
  • People lose their dignity and families are separated as status changes from independent farmers into migrant unskilled labourers.

Millions of women have suffered the harsh consequences.

The negative consequences of trade liberalization are not confined to Southern countries. The 1988 free trade agreement between the United States and Canada has already resulted in the loss of at least a quarter-million jobs for Canadians, as companies migrated to lower-wage and lower-tax regions of the United States. The Canadian Independent Services Association has predicted that within five years 360,000 jobs will be lost in computer work alone - jobs held mostly by women. Erosion of the commercial tax base has resulted in cuts in Canadian social services, including the country's renowned health care system. The United States has experienced a similar outflow of jobs to Mexico and other low wage countries, placing severe downward pressures on U.S. wages and benefits that have hit women particularly hard.

When 10 million more women joined the U.S. work force from 1981-1991, an increase of 25 percent, it was hailed as evidence of growing equality and feminist achievement. The influence of international competition on the job market combined with a faltering economy and inflation to diminish both the value of women's labour and their purchasing power over this same period.

Trade liberalization has resulted in Mexico gaining additional industrial jobs. Yet Mexico's people, especially women, have paid a heavy price. More than three-quarters of the workers in the low paying industrial jobs in the duty-free export-producing zones along the U.S.-Mexican border are women - generally very young women separated from their parental families and subject to various forms of exploitation. These same women and their children are the leading victims of skyrocketing cancer rates from the unregulated disposal of toxics in the zones.

When Mexican agriculture is taken into account, trade liberalization has probably resulted in an overall net loss of jobs even for Mexico. In anticipation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican constitution was amended to allow privatization of Mexico's communal agriculture system. Small farm families who cannot compete against cheap grain imports from the United States will be pushed off their farms in the tens of thousands with nowhere to go other than already overcrowded cities or the export processing zones as their lands are bought up by agribusiness corporations. The quality of women's lives will decline accordingly.

Current proposals to include services under free trade provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) would shift virtually all data processing now done in Northern countries to countries in the South. Women who recently became wage-earners in the North will find themselves unemployed. Women in the South, displaced from the land by the agricultural provisions of free trade agreements, will be forced to migrate to over-crowded cities and work in the burgeoning number of computerized sweatshops. Service corporations will grow richer while paying one-tenth the wages they must pay in the North.

Further economic globalization will almost certainly perpetuate and deepen these destructive patterns. Women have had little voice in the trade negotiations that have, largely without their knowledge, reshaped their lives. They must organize, familiarize themselves with the issues, and speak out with a clear and articulate voice on international trade and investment issues that have very real consequences for themselves and their families.

Kristin Dawkins is Senior Fellow, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 1313 Fifth Street S.E., Suite 303, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414-1546, U.S.A., Fax (612) 379-5982. Produced by the PCD Forum based on her article "Global Trade Pact: A Bad Deal for Women".

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