My first post considers the idea that export processing zones (EPZs) might serve as a vehicle for women's economic empowerment. Yes, those EPZs. The idea was posited in a recent study released by the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Yes, that IFC. Even more surprising - outlandish even - about the IFC study was the frank and unabashed advocacy by the authors for workplace childcare programs and sexual harassment complaint mechanisms. The entire proposition was too incongruous to ignore.
I'm not so naive as to think that EPZs will turn from Exploitation Zones where workers work far too hard for far too little money into Excellent Places to Work Zones. Even those employers that take pride in their stance on empowering women have a hard time acknowledging that workplaces in their supply chains do little to empower women economically or otherwise with bottom-of-the-barrel wages, workplace abuse and excessive hours, as discussed in this excellent August 26, 2016 piece in Slate about women manufacturing sneakers in Vietnam by Maria Hengeveld.
Still, the independent governance structures, the presence of EPZ Administrators and a global organization WEPZA - plus the support of the IFC of all organizations - gives advocates something to work with. WEPZA seems like a great vehicle for transmission of Better Workplace ideas that economically empower women (and men) working in EPZs.
A starting place might be the establishment of a worker and women's rights counterpart organization to WEPZA - to engage in information exchange, training and development of model programs and policies.
Another starting place would be for international trade unions like ITUC to approach WEPZA to negotiate an International Framework Agreement (IFA) with provisions extending enhanced protections to women and men working in EPZs.
I suspect that negotiation of an IFA with WEPZA and regional subgroups would not be an easy task - but this is where policy makers in governments supportive of international workers' rights (Canada, the United States, the European Union) and in international bodies like the OECD and even the IFC might serve as convenors and encouragers of this kind of project.
Regardless of what side of the discussion we are on, we all have to remember that the easiest way to empower a woman economically is to put more money in her pocket in the form of higher wages and to allow her sufficient free time to spend that money as she wishes.