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How will the FTAA impact women?

Por Marceline White


According to a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), despite overall economic growth in Latin America, rural poverty has grown 10 to 20% in the past three years. More than 90 million Latin American and Caribbean farmers live below the poverty line, while 47 million live in extreme poverty. The report notes that women are the sole heads of eight to ten million households in the region, two to three million women are employed as seasonal wage-laborers, while 30 to 40 million women are responsible for their household's farming activities and small rural industries. Women seasonal laborers are likely to be much poorer than others and to compete against one another for jobs, thereby driving down wages. In addition, casual and seasonal work means that the poor spend more of their time seeking work than the non-poor - though much less of their time in long-term unemployment.

Agriculture agreements under the FTAA may increase food insecurity in Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently, there are more subsidies and supports for developed countries than for developing ones. The FTAA is likely to increase dependence on food imports and decrease countries self-sufficiency.


In Latin America, women account for 70 to 90% of workers in the export-processing zones (EPZs) where they assemble garments, textiles and electronics for export. In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, women earn $4 a day, not a "living wage" in a border town where prices tend to be close to US prices.

Foreign firms show a preference for women workers in part because women will accept lower wages than men. Moreover, women tend to be willing to work under worse conditions than men are (for lack of other alternatives). Many workers earn as little as 56-77 cents an hour and often work 50-80 hours a week. Women workers in many factories have reported physical abuse, sexual harassment and violence. Mandatory pregnancy testing is often a condition for employment. Promotion to higher-level jobs is almost non-existent.

Discrimination is now leading to job loss for women EPZ workers. As export production becomes more specialized (and better paying), there is an increased demand for men's labor. In Mexico, the proportion of female workers in export manufacturing fell from 77% in 1982 to 60 percent in 1990. Without adequate training and support to upgrade women's skills, any benefits that women gain from this employment are short-lived.

The FTAA will likely not include measures to support training to upgrade women's skills. At the same time, the FTAA agricultural agreement may lead to falling prices for crops, thus driving more women into maquiladoras as a 'survival strategy' to meet their families basic needs. In addition, if other countries compete with Latin America and the Caribbean to attract multi-nationals, wages may drop further. The FTAA will likely not include mechanisms to hold corporations accountable for their actions.


The public service sector has been associated with more highly skilled and waged jobs for women. Women have worked as nurses, doctors, administrators, teachers and social workers. Privatization of social services has already been mandated for many indebted countries through the IMF and World Bank. These privatization plans have disproportionately affected women. Women workers have been the first fired under privatization. In 1991, after Nicaragua agreed to an IMF privatization plan, they laid off government workers, particularly in the health and education fields. More than 70% of those laid off were women. New jobs in health care and education tend to command lower wages, few benefits and little job security. Privatizing basic services will affect women consumers who cut back on doctor's visits, schooling or other basic needs if the cost becomes too great.

Water may be privatized as part of the FTAA, which has serious health implications for women and children. If the price of water is too high for poor families as a result of privatization, women may resort to either rationing water for their families or substituting unsanitary water for clean water when necessary. Unclean water is a leading cause of child mortality and illness in developing countries. Recent IMF-led water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, led a mother of five to choose between food and water when her water bill rose from $5 to $20 a month. That $15 increase had previously been the means to feed her family for a week and a half. To pay her water bill, she had to reduce the amount spent on food and clothing for her family. | alca | Plan Puebla-Panamá |