What "Free Trade" Pacts Mean for Women

It has been nearly ten years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China and the U.S. government’s ratification of the Beijing Platform for Action. To commemorate the occasion, analysts and organizations have begun to assess the expected gains in preparation for the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting in March, 2005.

One fact stands out: in the area of the macroeconomy, women in the U.S. and abroad have experienced major shifts, many of them negative. These shifts have occurred in employment, consumption, and general well-being for women, their families, and their communities. Some of the shifts can be linked to NAFTA and other free trade agreements, while other trends are part of the long-term privatization and deregulation agenda (implemented in the U.S. since the 1980s) that forms the foundation for much of the U.S. trade agenda in key sectors such as services, agriculture, and investment.


Making Macroeconomics a Women’s Issue

Prior to the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, few in the U.S. women’s movement were focused on macro-economic questions. Women’s traditional focus had been on national poverty and economic justice. In Beijing , however, activists and policy analysts pushed the U.S. government to agree to language acknowledging the sometimes negative impact of macroeconomic policies on women globally and to bring gender concerns into all levels of macroeconomic decisionmaking. Some examples of the commitments the U.S. government made in Beijing in the area of poverty and the economy include:1

* Revising laws and administrative practices to ensure women’s equal rights and access to economic resources;

* Developing gender-based methodologies to conduct research to address the feminization of poverty;

* Promoting women’s economic rights and independence, including access to employment, appropriate working conditions, and control over economic resources;

* Facilitating women’s equal access to resources, employment, markets, and trade;

* Eliminating occupational segregation and all forms of employment discrimination;

* Promoting harmonization of work and family responsibilities for women and men (i.e. labor protections, job benefits, parental leave, education reform, and technological innovation).

From a structural analysis, the Beijing Platform recognized the need for strong national programs on the advancement of women and the promotion of gender equality, which require political commitment at the highest level. Such commitment includes monitoring policies, introducing and implementing legislation, programs and capacity building, as well as public dialogue on gender equality as a societal goal.

The results have been less than satisfying. On a global level, there has been an increase in economic disparities among and within countries. Increasingly, nation states are unable to provide social protections, social security, or funding to implement the Platform. The shift of service provision from the public sphere to the household, and inadequate attention to the different nature of work for women and men (remunerated and unremunerated, formal and informal), are having a disproportionately negative impact on women.

Ten years after Beijing , U.S. women in solidarity with their sisters in other parts of the world are assessing progress in the area of the economy–not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities. In the United States , it is clear that the government has not lived up to the promises made in Beijing .

Despite advocacy from national women’s, development, labor, and human rights groups, since Beijing Washington has done little to incorporate a gender analysis into its macroeconomic policies and into decisionmaking processes, nor has it acknowledged that its trade policies are having a negative and heavier impact on women and children than on men.

It is no surprise that trade necessarily affects women differently than men because of their different and often secondary social status in the economy. In employment, women tend to hold different positions than men, they receive less pay than men, and they are often the first laid off when companies downsize. Women are more likely to move in and out of the formal and informal sectors as they struggle to balance work and family with little federal support. Women and children are also the most negatively affected when social programs are privatized and/or deregulated. This can raise the cost of provision, making it impossible for families to receive proper care and assistance.

Many women of color are even harder hit by negative economic trends than white women, since shifts in the economy have differential impacts based on race and class. As trade drives the global economic agenda of the U.S. government and, to a certain degree, its national and foreign policy, U.S. women’s voices from a race, class, and gender perspective are critical for identifying positive goals and implementation processes.

A gender perspective must also take into account environmental and sustainable development goals to create a comprehensive quality-of-life assessment. Solutions also should be developed with such a comprehensive understanding in mind.


NAFTA Through a Gender Lens

The U.S. Government ratified NAFTA with Canada and Mexico in 1993. Ten years later, the administration considers it a success and uses it as the blueprint for other trade negotiations.

When it was being drafted, policymakers predicted that NAFTA would open borders, narrow the gap between rich and poor within and among the three countries, and create new jobs. The results of NAFTA paint a different picture. Goods are able to cross the borders, but people are not. Thousands of undocumented workers try to get into the United States every day and are turned back. Additionally, hundreds of undocumented workers are killed each year trying to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has widened in all the NAFTA countries. Millions of jobs have been lost across the three NAFTA countries. The nature of work has changed as well.

The supposed gains from NAFTA have not been realized and this has left many people concerned about the current and future direction of trade rules that use NAFTA as a model. Within this analysis, different sectors of civil society–including labor and environmental groups–emphasize the negative effects of NAFTA from their particular angle. As vital actors in the changes, women have begun to do the same.

Preliminary statistics from a gender perspective offer compelling evidence that in the United States and the other signatory countries the differential impact of NAFTA on the quality of peoples’ lives, on the environment, and on sustainable development is often very negative. Some statistics in the areas of labor, agriculture, and migration follow.



In the U.S., job loss has occurred in key sectors such as steel and textile manufacturing. The nature of work has also shifted over time from being primarily stable, long-term positions to work that is flexible, precarious, and tenuous. U.S.-owned multinationals have found it economically advantageous to shift production to Mexico and other places in the Global South where they can bypass labor and environmental regulations. This production model has resulted in weaker unions, flexible, tenuous labor with less benefits, and job loss. The following statistics demonstrate the losses:

* In the United States , all 50 states have experienced job loss under NAFTA. The industrial states have experienced noticeable decreases in employment as industry has moved to Mexico .2 Many women who have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector and found new jobs in the service industry suffer a decrease in wages and stability.3 For example, Registered Nurses are increasingly contracted as part-time employees with no benefits and no overtime –as of 2000, 97.8% of the more than 2.6 million Registered Nurses in the U.S. are women.4

* In the state of Texas, for example, more than 17,000 garment manufacturing jobs have been lost as firms relocated to Mexico, and now China. Most of the workers affected by this transnational shift in production are first-generation Mexican women, many of whom are illiterate, speak little English, and have few prospects for finding comparable work.5

In 1996, the maquila industry in Mexico accounted for over U.S. $29 billion in annual export earnings and trailed only petroleum-related industries in economic importance.6 Although growing numbers of men now work in the maquiladora sector, almost 70% of the maquila workforce in Mexico is comprised of women.7 Working conditions in the maquilas are often unsafe for women and adolescent girls. Women have been denied fair working conditions and wages as a direct result of the type of foreign direct investment that was implemented under NAFTA. The jobs created under NAFTA did not improve the living conditions for many Mexican women workers who may be receiving a salary but work in precarious and unsafe conditions with social costs to their lives and that of their families related to violence, scarcity, long hours and forced overtime, and other hardships.8



Agricultural export-led production, as encouraged under NAFTA and promoted in other FTAs that the U.S. has initiated, largely favors U.S.-owned agribusiness by maintaining domestic supports and unfair subsidies while at the same time forcing open export markets. This model has changed the nature of farming and food production. Shifts in agricultural ownership and production over time have all but eliminated small family farming in the United States and largely wiped out the small farmers in Mexico ‘s rural sector. In addition, both prices for commodities and family farm incomes have plummeted and threats to the environment have increased.9

A few statistics on rural employment, environmental, food security, and gender-specific concerns are included below:

* U.S. export-led production has driven down prices relative to costs and created massive rural unemployment in Mexico. For example, Mexican corn farmers comprise 29% of rural unemployment as a direct result of U.S. corn production under NAFTA.10

* Chemical fertilizers are used on the vast majority of U.S. corn crops. The run-off is a major source of water pollution, affecting drinking water throughout the cornbelt in the center of the country. Run-off into the Mississippi River contributes to a well-documented “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area the size of a small U.S. state in which all life has been killed off.”11

* Despite U.S. citizen’s concerns about the potential health dangers of genetically modified crops, over 30% of U.S. corn production and over 70% of soy production is genetically modified.12

* Approximately 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the U.S., roughly 75% in agricultural production, much of which is targeted toward production for export.13 Farm workers, their families, and their communities are among those at greatest risk from pesticide exposure and related illness. An estimated 300,000 farm workers suffer pesticide poisoning every year in the U.S.14 In the adult sampling, women and Mexican Americans have the highest body-burden levels of several organochlorine pesticides. Children also carry high body-burden of many these pesticides, which damage the nervous system.15

* U.S. farm workers, the majority of whom are foreign-born and from Mexico, are among the poorest laborers in the U.S., falling well below the poverty threshold for single adults and families.

* According to an OXFAM America report, workers in many cases are paid 30% less today than they were in 1980.

* Women farm workers face particular discrimination in getting semi-skilled and skilled jobs. While men account for 80% of farm workers in the U.S., women are mainly hired in the packing houses and processing plants rather than in the fields. Women often need to work longer hours in order to earn the same income as men. At the same time, they often have primary responsibility for caring for their children and completing household chores.16

* The majority of U.S. farm workers are undocumented. They are more likely to have temporary jobs and migrate for seasonal work. Ninety-nine percent of all farm workers do not have social security or disability insurance and 95% do not have health insurance for non-work related injuries or illness.17 Migratory and seasonal work separates families, a burden further intensified by declining benefits.

* Thirty-seven percent of adolescent farm workers in the U.S. work full time.18


Migration to the U.S. due to rural unemployment and overall lack of jobs has risen post-NAFTA. Foreign-born workers in the U.S. , many from Mexico , are increasingly sending remittances back to their home countries to help their families survive economically. Undocumented workers trying get into the U.S. are facing serious violence and even death. To date, there is not enough gender analysis of migration in the U.S. specifically related to NAFTA. Nonetheless, some statistics are available that indicate the growing number of women migrants and the specific problems they face:

* Of the over 8 million undocumented workers in the U.S., over half are from Mexico.19 The majority of undocumented Mexican workers are men20, but the number of women is growing.

* 346 people died along the 2,000 mile U.S. border with Mexico over the fiscal year 2002/2003. The number was 320 the year prior.21

* The Inter-American Development Bank projects that remittances sent from the United States to Latin America will exceed 30 billion in the year 2004. The border-states such as Texas, California, Arizona, and Florida as well as other areas like Washington, DC represent the largest populations from which money is being sent.22

* 43.5% of families receiving remittances in the rural sector of Mexico post-NAFTA are female-headed.23

* In the year 2000, women constituted more than half of the migrants in the Americas region as whole. (This includes South/South migration between Latin America and the Caribbean as well as South/North migration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the U.S. and Canada).24

Privatization and Deregulation

Privatization and deregulation of services and other key sectors are prerequisites for opening up markets for trade and their impact on women is profound. The U.S. steps toward NAFTA and other free trade agreements are based on the assumption that privatization and deregulation have worked successfully at the national level. These shifts have taken place without ensuring the proper safeguards and regulations to ensure that peoples’ basic needs are being met.

The reality is that along with the shifts toward private-sector services associated with NAFTA, people in the U.S. are experiencing a crisis in healthcare, social security, pensions, and welfare programs. These programs are being dismantled at the federal level through privatization and deregulation policies. As part of this trend, over 44 million people in the U.S. are uninsured for healthcare. The 1996 “Welfare to Work” legislation has resulted in major cuts in federal and state assistance to the poor, which are comprised mostly of women and ethnic minority groups. In 2002, households headed by single women comprised half of the families living in poverty.25

In many cases, privatization and deregulation compound the hardships caused by job loss and flexibilization of labor, since social services are reduced precisely when many families most need them.


This preliminary set of statistics shows that the NAFTA model based on trade, finance, and investment liberalization, in line with ongoing privatization and deregulation policy shifts, is having a negative impact on many women and their families’ livelihoods. Ten years after the World Conference on Women in Beijing and after NAFTA, U.S. women should demand different macroeconomic policies that will promote rather than reverse our human rights, and that will increase and not diminish our solidarity with our sisters in the global women’s movement.

ALEXANDRA SPIELDOCH is with the Center of Concern and coordinator of the International Trade and Gender Network.



1. United Nations Beijing Platform for Action. Chapters on Poverty and the Economy. Beijing, China. 1995.
2. Robert E. Scott, “The High Cost of Free Trade: NAFTA’s Failure Has Cost the United States Across the Nation.” Economic Policy Insitute. November, 2003.
3. Elizabeth Kahling, ” U.S. Women Workers: Trends and Trade.” August, 2002
4. Bill Brubaker. “Hospitals Go Abroad to Fill Slots for Nurses.” Washington Post, 2001.
5. Charlie LeDuff, “Mexicans Who Came North Struggle as Jobs Head South.” New York Times, October 13, 2004.
6. Miriam Ching Louie. Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Take on the Global Factory. 2001, p. 69.
7. Ibid.
8. Bama Athreya and Cathy Feingold. “How will the FTAA Impact Women Workers?” excerpt from Breaking Boundaries II: The Free Trade Area of the Americas and Women: Understanding the Connections. U.S. Gender and Trade Network. September 2003, p.5.
9. Robert E. Scott and Adam S. Hersch. “Trading Away U.S. Farms.” September, 2001.
10. “Making Global Trade Work for People.” Heinrich Boell Foundation, Wallace Global Fund, UNDP, the Rockefeller Foundation, 2003, 132.
11. Alejandro Nadal and Timothy Wise, “The Environmental Costs of Agricultural Trade Liberalization: U.S.-Mexico Maize Trade Under NAFTA,” in Globalization and the Environment, Lessons from the Americas, Working Groups on Trade and Environment in the Americas, Heinrich Boll Foundation, June 2004, p. 29. Available at http://www.boell.de/downloads/global/Boell_LessonsAmericas.pdf.
12. “Genetically Modified Crops in the United States.” Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. A Project of the University of Richmond. August, 2004.
13. Kristin Shafer, Margaret Reeves, Skip Spitzer and Susan E. Kegley, Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in our bodies and Corporate Accountability. Pesticide Action Network in North America . May 2004, p. 31.
14. Oxfam America. Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture. March 2004, p. 3.
15. Ibid, p. 5-7.
16. Ibid, p. 2-7.
17. Ibid, p.3 -8.
18. Ibid., p. 7.
19. Michael Fix and Passel, Jeffrey S. “Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight,” The Urban Institute (May 1994).
20. “NAFTA and the FTAA: A Gender Analysis of Employment and Poverty Impacts in Agriculture.” Women’s EDGE. November, 2003, p. 29
21. “Border Deaths hit Record High.” Compiled by Weekly News Update on the Americas, available at http://www.americas.org/news/nir/20031003_border_deaths_hit_record_high.asp
22. Inter-American Development Bank. “Sending Money Home: Remittances from the U.S. to Latin America, 2004.” http://www.iadb.org/exr/remittances/ranking.cfm?Language=English
23. “NAFTA and the FTAA: A Gender Analysis of Employment and Poverty Impacts in Agriculture.” Women’s EDGE. November, 2003, p. 30.
24. Hania Zlotnik. The Global Dimensions of Female Migration, March 2003. www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=109
25. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Number of Americans Without Health Insurance Rose in 2002. October 8, 2003. www.cbpp.org