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Problems with current U.S. policy.

Key Problems

* Trade agreements may contain general language addressing workers' rights, but in many cases these standards do not include specific protections for women.

* Trade unions have found it difficult to organize women workers, and workplace problems specific to women have sometimes remained unresolved.

* The core labor standards do not deal with pervasive forms of discrimination against women, such as sexual harassment.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Congress passed a series of laws that directly linked U.S. trade benefits to a set of worker rights criteria. The first of these programs, the Caribbean Basin Initiative, contained only a one-line reference to workers' rights, but in 1984 the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which allows more than 4,000 products from 140 developing countries to enter the U.S. market duty-free, incorporated a definition of workers' rights that has become standard in all subsequent U.S. legislation. The GSP's labor clause included the right to associate and bargain collectively, prohibitions on forced labor and child labor, and the right to "decent" working conditions, including an acceptable minimum wage.

In order to be eligible for GSP benefits, a country must have a per capita Gross National Product (GNP) below $10,000 per year. The labor clause was intended to ensure that countries given a special trade privilege would be held to basic standards of decency in employment. However, notably absent from the GSP labor clause is the right to a workplace free from discrimination, something the ILO recognizes as a core labor right.

Even if this core right were included in U.S. trade legislation, it would be merely a first step in addressing the most fundamental rights violations suffered by women workers around the globe. Many women in both formal and informal employment find it impossible to gain access to freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

Even in formal employment, the right to organize is a remote dream for most women workers. For example, Bangladesh, one of the world's top producers of garments for the U.S. market, has long prohibited organizing in its EPZs, while Kenya, a top U.S. trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, bans union organizing in practice. In both of these countries, the majority of workers in the EPZs are women. Moreover, in light manufacturing industries, where women dominate the workplace, industrial settings are often so highly regimented that the time and space to organize are virtually nonexistent, and repression of workers' attempts to organize is often brutal.

In addition, male-dominated trade unions in some countries have been slow to organize young female manufacturing workers. Although trade unionists in Central America are beginning to support organizing drives in the export processing areas, many female workers still rely on women's organizations, not unions, to help them gain labor protections.

Women workers face particular constraints and challenges not covered by these core labor rights. Human Rights Watch reports in 1996 and 1998 documented the systematic use of pregnancy testing in Mexican factories producing clothing, electronic goods, and household appliances for export to the United States. Women who were interviewed reported that they were mistreated and forced to resign if they became pregnant. Some recounted that they had been assigned to strenuous jobs that required heavy lifting, after supervisors learned they were pregnant; rather than risk losing their meager-but-much-needed incomes, these women simply forced themselves to carry out the more strenuous work.

A 2002 report by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) documents violence against women in agricultural industries in Kenya. Many women harvesting coffee and tea for export have kept silent about extreme sexual harassment--even rape--by their supervisors in order to keep their jobs.

Required to live on the plantations, these women have no means of escape, and no laws exist to protect them from being assaulted by supervisors in the fields. The Kenya research also revealed that supervisors frequently withhold, or threaten to withhold, women workers' pay in order to coerce them to submit to sexual advances.

Preliminary data gathered by the ILRF suggests that similar abuses are taking place among major U.S. trading partners in Latin America and Asia, including Thailand, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, but little documentation exists. Nevertheless, it appears that submission to sexual abuse may be among the untallied costs of retaining one's job in the global economy.
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Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:Dec 10, 2002
Words:720
Previous Article:Trade is a women's issue.
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