Trade deals a bad deal for women – professor

Free trade agreements and the opening up of world markets were dangerous for women and other disadvantaged groups, a Canadian academic, Professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen, told the Women, Power and Politics conference.

Professor Cohen, an economist and professor of women’s studies at a Toronto university, said these changes were putting women out of work, causing the cutting of social services relied upon by women and families, and dramatically curtailing the ability of governments to make decisions for the public good.

Professor Cohen said agreements such as the one between the United States and Canada (Nafta) allowed large corporations so much power that the democratic process was being subverted. She said that in Canada, government plans for plain packaging of cigarettes and the setting up of a state car insurance system were dropped when American corporations threatened to sue for the billions they would lose in current and future income from the move.

She said that Nafta, the (North American Free Trade Agreement) required the permission of trading partners before a new public program could be set up. It also insisted that companies in the trading partner country be compensated for any losses they might incur. “Any government that decided it wanted a national day care program or a dental scheme would be discouraged by trade enforcement of prohibitively expensive compensation to US providers of those services in Canada,” Professor Cohen said.

“The wishes of people as expressed through the actions of elected democratic governments are being superseded by international trade rules. It is becoming increasingly irrelevant politically what economic and social issues parties decide to pursue.

“Women, minorities and the disadvantaged are confronting a very nasty political reality: this is the experience of even less democratic participation than we have had … Real decision-making power will elude us as the seat of power itself shifts.”
Professor Cohen said that half a million Canadian jobs had disappeared since the introduction of Nafta, many of them belonging to women in industries such as clothing and textiles. She predicted that the Canadian public health system would collapse by 2000 because Canada no longer had generic drugs but had to use much more expensive brand- name pharmaceuticals.

The conference will tomorrow debate whether to condemn “economic fundamentalism”. It will also consider recommending the establishment of an International Equity Association, linking women’s groups that believe the present international economic order will create “growing gender inequity and the loss of civilised society”.

First published in The Age.