“Help Wanted”: Can trade benefit women in Latin America?

December 16, 2010
Andrés Rius
GGP One-pager series

In today’s globalized economy, Latin American countries must seek opportunities to expand exports wherever they can. Trade and macroeconomic policies influence production of goods and services, which in turn affects employment and income. The gains and losses from these are not uniform across sectors and demographic groups. The IDRC-funded project Trade, Gender and Equity in Latin America[i] assessed the impact of trade patterns on female labour. The research revealed that, overall, trade has not resulted in more jobs for women, nor has it narrowed the income gap between men and women.[ii] While this is true in the aggregate, the impact has varied across sectors, with jobs created in some sectors and lost in others. However, because the care economy has not kept pace with changes in the labour market, new opportunities for gainful employment or income growth for women have not always been seized.

At the same time, Latin American countries continue to undertake social policy reforms, often involving state retrenchment or ill-conceived decentralization. These have affected the opportunities families have to access care services, so most of these care tasks fall traditionally and disproportionately on women. In Brazil, for example, 91% of employed women engage in non-remunerated care tasks at home, compared to only 51% of men. These women spend, on average, 20 hours per week on care tasks, while men spend an average of 9. Although unremunerated, these tasks are essential, both for the family’s immediate welfare and for building human capital of the future workforce. The time required to perform these tasks affects women’s participation in the labour market (see graph below), and thus undermines their ability to seize new employment opportunities arising from trade.

Source: International Gender and Trade Network
Toward inclusive growth
This evidence demonstrates that the benefits from employment in export sectors will not be realized if the care sector is not reformed. Even if trade were to expand employment opportunities for women, without reforms to the provision of care services, existing income and employment disparities between men and women could persist or grow. Furthermore, in the long term, the care sector’s shortcomings would have negative impacts on the levels of human capital of children from working families. In addition to being more gender-equitable, policies that improve the supply of care services (and thereby increase women’s labour force participation) may also be pro-growth.
Modest progress has already been made in this regard. In Chile, the government has expanded access to publicly financed nurseries and kindergartens, for up to eight hours a day. It has also found solutions for women employed in the agri-food export sectors where seasonal jobs coincide with the long summer holidays. In Brazil, those services, when they exist, are restricted to certain geographic areas and target women who can show economic need. Moreover, in most countries, there is no paid parental leave for fathers.
Key choices
Feminist organizations have found it particularly difficult to engage trade negotiators on gender equity issues. This may not be surprising, given the peculiar environment in which trade negotiators operate.[iii]
Moreover, trade policies may not be particularly well suited to address gender inequalities in the labour markets, as they are not the primary instruments for fine-tuning distributional impacts of growth. While it is clear that trade can increase employment, income, and ultimately government social expenditure, trade policy can only affect trade patterns to a certain degree, and affects employment and income even more indirectly (for example, even in open economies such as Chile’s, less than 15% of salaried workers are employed directly by export industries).
This GGP-supported research shows that gender-equitable growth might result from the appropriate combination of trade strategies and social policies. Although this may seem an unusual pairing, it is important to consider social policies, such as those affecting the care sector, alongside trade and industrial policy. In other words, the interactions between international economic integration and social policies need to be analyzed, using more and better evidence.
[i] IDRC Project #103639; partner organization: Latin American Chapter of International Gender and Trade Network; Project leader: Alma Espino.