Francesca Rhodes is a Women's Rights Policy and Advocacy Specialist at Oxfam Canada.
NAFTA 2.0 will have far-reaching implications for the lives of North American women. Renegotiating the agreement is an opportunity for Canada's self-proclaimed feminist government to put words into action by tackling gender inequality and the structural barriers that female workers and business owners face across all three countries.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has called for a more progressive deal that includes a new chapter on 'gender rights.' While it's unclear what this will look like, it's encouraging to see the government identify this as a priority in the upcoming talks.
Will having more women at the table ensure a better deal for women?
The Liberal government's North American free-trade agreement advisory council has eight men and five women. Not quite the equal balance in Justin Trudeau's cabinet, but pretty close. Among the members is former opposition leader Rona Ambrose, now a global fellow at the Wilson Centre's Canada Institute, who has called herself a feminist.
Two of the four new Canadian diplomatic appointees to the United States are also women, and the U.S. Senate has confirmed a woman, Kelly Knight Craft, as ambassador to Canada.
None of this ensures gender equality will truly be championed in the negotiations. The variety of political stripes and viewpoints on the NAFTA council means members will not be beholden to the Liberals' feminist agenda. Even if they do toe that line, Oxfam Canada has found the government's rhetoric has yet to translate into meaningful policy and spending decisions here at home on the economic front.
When it comes to the promise of inclusive growth, the government has yet taken no tangible steps to close the gender wage gap or to ensure living wages for the working poor, the majority of whom are women.
Past experience shows the greatest gains for gender equality are made when women's rights organizations have a seat at the table. No one on the Canadian NAFTA council is a specific representative or expert in gender equality or women's issues.
Gender inequality in the Canadian economy remains highly visible. Women are paid less than men in 469 out of 500 occupations monitored by Statistics Canada, and on average earn 72 cents to every dollar earned by men. Women represent 60 per cent of minimum wage earners, and are more likely to work part-time in order to manage care responsibilities.
This inequality is mirrored in the U.S. and Mexico, where women also dominate the low-wage work force. The current NAFTA agreement has failed to improve their wages significantly or ensure safe working conditions.
That Ms. Freeland called for more labour safeguards to be part of a renegotiated deal is a positive step towards gender equality. But it's not only about improving worker rights and wages. Governments must also recognize and invest in the care economy, which forces too many women into precarious work.
So how can Ottawa use its feminist lens to fix what isn't working?
Firstly, gender equality deserves more than just a chapter. All staff working on trade agreements should be required to analyze them from a gender perspective, so that women of all socio-economic levels benefit, no matter what kind of work they do.
Second, consider much of the discussion around gender and trade so far – from Ottawa to the White House – focuses on empowering women entrepreneurs. More nuanced criteria are needed to identify which female-led businesses face the highest structural barriers to reap the benefits of trade. Whether a woman leads the organization should not be the only consideration.
Finally, NAFTA must take into account all the ways women contribute to the economy, including those who work in supply chains, use public services and provide the vast majority of unpaid care and domestic work. By only focusing on women at the top, those at the bottom of the economic ladder lose out, which only reinforces these inequalities.
A truly feminist approach to renegotiating NAFTA would ensure not only that women's rights organizations and experts are consulted and represented at the table during these key conversations, but that the entire process is carried out in a transparent and accountable way.
Unfair trade deals can exacerbate the already unequal position of women in the economy. Showing leadership and commitment to address these inequities will be a key test for the Trudeau government's feminist agenda.