Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Oversold and under-delivered: The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Women's Economic Empowerment

This piece was simultaneously published on the Huffington Post.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership should not be ratified without meaningful provisions on Women's Economic Empowerment.

U.S. ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is up in the air due to opposition by both major party presidential candidates, a number of members of Congress and U.S. trade unions. If negotiations are to be reopened to address the public's concerns, one area that must be revisited and reopened for negotiation is that of Women's Economic Empowerment.

Women's Economic Empowerment was clearly a goal of the Obama Administration in the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade area between countries on all sides of the Pacific including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. In April 2014, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman published a post on the USTR blog Tradewinds extolling the advantages free trade can have for women. Froman references a USTR strategic paper that highlights 4 areas in which the TPP would enhance women's economic empowerment - protecting vulnerable workers, increasing formal employment, promoting development and encouraging development.

It should come as no surprise that the Obama Administration would want to prioritize the empowerment of women in its international trade agenda. Women's Economic Empowerment and achieving gender equality are also global policy goals for the international community. Two critical gender-equality targets under the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are (1) ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere and (2) eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls everywhere in the public and private spheres. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a robust research and policy agenda in support of the achievement of gender equality - most notably exemplified by its May 2013 Recommendation on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship. Gender equality was a key agenda item for the 11th Summit for the Pacific Alliance (a regional integration project of TPP signatories Chile, Mexico and Peru as well as Colombia) held in Chile in June-July 2016. An OECD report on gender equality in the Pacific Alliance published in August 2016 emphasizes not only the need to create a supportive business environment for women entrepreneurs, but the damaging role unequal pay for women has on the economy and the importance quality childcare and early childhood education programs have both for working women and the overall wellbeing of a country's inhabitants.

When I first heard a rumor at a conference in Toronto in May 2014 that there would be provisions on Women's Economic Empowerment in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I envisioned an entire chapter dedicated to Women's Economic Empowerment on the same level as Labor (Chapter 19), Environment (Chapter 20) or Intellectual Property (Chapter 18) - something like the wide ranging 2012 U.S.-Mexico Memorandum of Understanding for the Promotion of Gender Equality, the Empowerment of Women and Women's Human Rights signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa. The scope of cooperation in the 2012 MOU includes the strengthening of citizenship security (particularly for women and girls) and promotion of economic empowerment and opportunities, social development that supports women and increased access to justice for women.

An entire TPP chapter devoted to Women's Economic Empowerment would make history, putting women and issues facing working women and business owners at the center of U.S. trade policy.

The actual result in the TPP is a little more underwhelming. A February 2016 blog piece by former Acting Deputy USTR Wendy Cutler in The Hill highlights that the Women's Economic Empowerment text is tucked away in Article 23.4 of TPP Chapter 23: Development.

In fairness, inclusion of an entire FTA chapter devoted to development is new to U.S. trade policy. Article 23.1.1 of TPP Chapter 23 on Development affirms the parties' "commitment to promote and strengthen an open trade and investment environment that seeks to improve welfare, reduce poverty, raise living standards and create new employment opportunities in support of development." TPP's development chapter emphasizes the concept of Inclusive Growth, which it defines as "broad-based distribution of the benefits of economic growth through the expansion of business and industry, the creation of jobs, and the alleviation of poverty."

Inclusion of any text at all devoted to women's role in economic development is also new to U.S. trade policy. Article 23.4 extends the concept of inclusive growth to include women, In the first clause, the parties to the TPP recognize that enhancing opportunities for women contributes to economic development. This covers women as both workers and business owners.

The second clause of Article 23.4 commits the parties to the TPP "to consider [my emphasis] undertaking cooperative activities aimed at enhancing the ability of women, including workers and business owners, to fully access and benefit from the opportunities created by this Agreement." Examples of cooperative activities include developing women's leadership networks; identifying best practices related to workplace flexibility; helping women build their skills and capacity; and enhancing women's access to markets, technology and financing.

On the one hand, Article 23.4 creates an opening for international dialogue on women's economic empowerment in the context of the TPP. With the right leadership and attention, women's rights advocates within and outside government policy circles can do a lot even with this little text. Much more has been built on a smaller foundation.

On the other hand, the gender-based commitment in Article 23.4.1 is highly contingent - flimsy almost. The parties do not even commit to undertake cooperative activities to enhance opportunities for women - they commit to consider undertaking cooperative activities to enhance opportunities for women. Is that even a binding commitment? "We've considered it and decided it against it." Even if it were a binding commitment, Article 23.9 specifically excludes Chapter 23 on Development from TPP's dispute resolution mechanism.

Thus, no TPP chapter devoted to Women's Economic Empowerment. No strong statement about the importance of women in the global economy or in Trans-Pacific Partnership member states. No binding commitment to empower women economically or otherwise.

The lack of meaningful provisions on Women's Economic Empowerment and gender equality in the TPP is just another instance where the promise of a modern "21st Century" trade agreement did not materialize. The political head winds against the TPP create an opportunity for improvement, however, and women's advocates throughout the Trans-Pacific region should take this opportunity to make their voices heard. TPP should not be ratified without a fully enforceable chapter on Women's Economic Empowerment.