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Bad Trade Deals and Women: Lower Wages, Reduced Access to Lifesaving Health Care and Human Trafficking

The theme for International Women's Day this year is gender parity, and while women continue to contribute to social, economic, cultural and political achievement, progress toward gender parity has slowed. And trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership does nothing to contribute to that parity and, in many cases, it will reinforce negatives such as downward pressure on wages, sex trafficking and reduced access to medicines.

The organizers of International Women's Day are asking us to pledge to take a concrete step to help achieve gender parity more quickly. Opposing the TPP should be a part of that pledge because:

1. The TPP Is a Race to the Bottom for Women Making the Minimum Wage: Modeled after other failed trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, the TPP will accelerate the race to the bottom, primarily benefiting global corporations. If Congress passes the TPP, Americans will be forced to compete more directly with Vietnamese workers who make less than 65 cents an hour. Women—especially women of color—are disproportionately affected by downward pressure on wages.

Women comprise nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and a race to the bottom in wages will most dramatically impact women of color, who make up a much higher percentage of minimum wage workers (23%) than their population in the workforce (16%). Trade agreements tend to discourage unionization and increase competition with international workers, which, in turn, erodes wages and worsens working conditions here at home and globally.

2. The TPP Is a Deal That Includes a Country That Jails Single Mothers: The TPP includes Brunei, whose dictator—during TPP negotiations—passed anti-LGBT and anti-women legislation. Under these new laws, the penal code calls for the imprisonment of women who have abortions or who have a child out of wedlock and flogging or death by stoning for gay men and for anyone found guilty of adultery or extramarital sex. Instead of condemning these actions, the United States continued to negotiate with Brunei, turning a blind eye to the sultan’s blatant disdain for women’s rights and international human rights law.

3. The TPP Jeopardizes Access to Medicines: During TPP negotiations, Big Pharma pushed for extreme monopolies in the deal and health care activists, including groups like Doctors Without Borders, have raised serious concerns about the effects on access to medicines. Drug companies have been allowed to add stipulations to the TPP that will increase the length of monopoly protections for brand-name drugs. Activists believe that the TPP would be a death sentence for many cancer patients, including those with breast and cervical cancer, by keeping life-saving cancer medicines out of reach due to exorbitant monopoly pricing. Women treating aggressive breast or cervical cancer do not have the luxury to wait five or eight years for access to affordable medicines. By pushing up drug prices, it could affect Medicaid, which also has a big effect on women and families.

4. The TPP Will Do too Little to Stop Human Trafficking and Slave Labor: The TPP puts us in partnership with countries that often turn a blind eye to women and men being compelled into slave labor. Malaysia, a TPP negotiating partner, is notorious for human trafficking, not only in the commercial sex industry, but also in its textile factories and agricultural industry. Vietnam also has significant problems with forced labor, and human trafficking is prevalent in the garment sector and in the informal economy. Many of the clothes produced there contain textiles produced in small workshops subcontracted to larger factories. These workshops frequently use forced labor, including women, and child labor involving the trafficking of children from rural areas into cities.

TPP supporters argue that the TPP is “one of the best tools we have to fight forced labor and human trafficking” in Malaysia and Vietnam, but the TPP fails to include any specific protections against exploitative or fraudulent international labor recruitment. Similar promises were made about the Colombia trade deal, but the commercial pressure to keep trade flowing freely has superseded efforts to protect workers. The Government Accountability Office found “persistent challenges to labor rights, such as limited enforcement capacity, the use of subcontracting to avoid direct employment…[and] violence against union leaders” in many countries with existing agreements, and the Department of Labor found that 10 countries that had free trade agreements with the United States continue to use child labor and forced labor to produce their goods, regardless of the international laws in place to prevent it.

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