Free trade or women’s rights? Analysis from Kate Lappin

January 11, 2017: Kate Lappin, regional coordinator of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, has written an article explaining how trade and investment agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) can deepen gendered inequality and exploitation.

If enacted, the RCEP would entrench the power of multinational corporations and the wealthy few, via provisions on ISDS, agriculture, intellectual property and trade in services.

The RCEP chapter on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) would give corporations the ability to sue governments if changes to government laws or policies has harmed their profit. UN experts published a statement in 2015 stating that they believed governments would be less likely to pass regulations if they fear ‘intrusive ISDS awards’. Such regulations could  include increases to the minimum wage, affirmative action programmes for women and Indigenous people or efforts to protect the environment, food security and access to essential medicines.

RCEP would also open land and agriculture to foreign investors. This would pit women working on small-scale subsistence farms against giant agrobusiness monopolies. Expanding commercial agriculture of course means less communal land and resources, which again would disproportionately impact women.

The expansion of intellectual property protections would require states to sign up to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, which would allow patenting of seeds and would criminalise the saving and sharing of patented seeds, with exemptions only available to landowners. The majority of women farmers are not landowners, and may be faced with fines or prison terms for collecting seeds.

The provisions would also extend monopolies on medicines, delaying the availability of cheaper generic medicines. This increases profits for pharmaceutical companies, but  women will have  less access to affordable medicines. Patenting of traditional plants and medicines also put them out of reach of Indigenous women (who used them for hundreds of years before these corporations came along).

The trade in services proposals in the TPP and RCEP encourage privatisation of essential services (like education, health, water and energy) and relax regulations on these services (like environmental and health standards). They may prevent governments from re-regulating if privatisation fails, as was required in Australia after the privatisation of TAFE.

In Kate’s words – the RCEP ‘will do particular harm to populations that are most excluded by capitalist economics – women, indigenous peoples, migrants and those without capital or political power’. It has no environmental, labor or gender chapters. In any case, Kate concludes that a gender equality chapter would not be enough to ameliorate the negative impacts of other provisions of the RCEP on women’s lives.