CAFTA & Women


espite union opposition in
several countries, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)
squeaked through the House of Representatives by only two votes
on July 28, after passing the Senate a month earlier. CAFTA expands
NAFTA-style trade to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,
and Costa Rica—with the possible later addition of the Dominican

CAFTA’s potential impact on women workers especially is cause
for grave concern, as women make up 45 percent of the global workforce,
but are 70 percent of the world’s poor. Under NAFTA, wages
declined significantly for all Mexican workers, but women made much
less than men to begin with, so poverty has increased 50 percent
for women-headed households in Mexico.  

Experts are predicting a bigger impact in Central America, since
countries there are less industrialized and financially stable than
Mexico, being predominately agricultural economies.  

Women farmers are often invisible in official statistics since the
importance of subsistence agriculture to food security and local
economies is underestimated. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization
now recognizes that women are responsible for the production of
60 to 80 percent of the food in the developing world. Women are
51 percent of the agricultural labor force globally and 63 percent
in developing countries. Women farmers in Central America will be
further alienated and strapped to compete against U.S. market dumping,
as they have less land and fewer resources in the first place. 

CAFTA will eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. goods and 50
percent of U.S. agricultural products, flooding Central American
markets with heavily subsidized U.S. produce. “For rural farmers
CAFTA means devastation” says Krista Hansen of the Committee
in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. 

Additionally, as Central American men migrate to the cities to find
work, more and more women will farm full time while maintaining
their role as the main caretakers for their children and households.
Having less time to balance all these responsibilities on top of
trying to compete with U.S. price subsidies often results in major
income loss or women losing their farms altogether. 

Rural poverty increased from 54 percent to 68 percent in Mexico
after NAFTA was implemented. More than 80 percent of Mexico’s
extreme poor are rural. After NAFTA, 300,000 women farmers in Mexico
lost their farms and their jobs. Of the women farmers left, only
three percent have more than ten hectares of land. Women’s
farms are usually much smaller than men’s and when land is
titled, it is usually put in a man’s name. This has had a severe
impact on women farmers because Mexico has changed its land laws
under NAFTA in favor of individual property rights, hurting women
who used to have communal rights to farm land. Women workers in
industrial jobs aren’t much better off, particularly in the
free trade zones where they are stuck with monotonous, low-paying
work. In the maquiladoras—factories in free trade zones—sex
discrimination is especially prevalent: forced pregnancy tests to
get hired, physical and verbal abuse, sexual harass ment, and age


ne of the International Labor
Organization’s five labor rights is the right to be free from
sex discrimination in the workplace, but according to Marianne Mollman
of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, “All
trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration have ignored
the internationally recognized right to nondiscrimination in the
workplace, and none has included adequate labor rights protections.” 

CAFTA was designed to facilitate the privatization of public resources
and services, from health care and education to water and electricity.
Since most public service employees in developing countries are
women, they will suffer disproportionately under privatization of
these services. With public sector jobs typically providing better
job security and health care benefits, job loss due to privatization
will worsen living standards. As primary caretakers for their families,
women will have to pick up the slack when these services are cut,
or be faced with hard decisions between medicine, food, school,
or rent. 

NAFTA forced 1.7 million Mexican farmers off their land into urban
maquiladoras or to the fields of U.S. agribusiness plantations.
Before NAFTA there were 900,000 migrant farmworkers in the United
States, 7 percent undocumented. Today there are over 2 million,
50 percent of whom are undocumented (80 percent of whom are from
Mexico). Undocumented workers are extremely vulnerable to harassment
and discrimination; they also suffer under some of the highest rates
of workplace injuries and fatalities. Additionally, women farm workers
face unique reproductive health problems from pesticide exposure. 

As Farm Labor Organizing Committee President Baldemar Velasquez
explains, “There are economic interests who want to perpetuate
a global low-wage work force and maintain the use of exploitable
labor.” In Mexico, the industrialization of agriculture and
the added effects of NAFTA have concentrated land ownership in hands
of the rich, displacing small farmers who become migrant farmworkers
or end up working in maquiladoras. 

Close to 1.3 million agricultural jobs were lost in Mexico under
NAFTA. It is not a coincidence that there are now 1.3 employees
in Mexico’s 2,700 maquiladoras. CAFTA is expected to have an
even deeper impact on the lives of Central Americans. 

Hornaday started at

Labor Notes

in June 2005 after working
with Students for Economic Justice (a United Students Against Sweatshops
chapter) and interning with the Women and International Development
Program at Michigan State University.