The Cost of APEC to Women: Rising Poverty, Inequality and Exploitation and Commodification of Marginalized Women and their Poor Communities

The Philippines hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders Meeting on November 17-20, 2015. A founding member, the Philippines has consistently followed APEC’s neoliberal, market-driven and corporate-led framework of economic development. Policies of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation meant to promote an Asia-Pacific regional economic integration continue to exacerbate economic, gender and social, and environmental injustices resulting in further inequality. Twenty-six years of participation in APEC has driven the Philippines deeper in poverty. Socio-economic gaps grow wider between the rich and the poor. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) report reveals that poverty incidence among Filipinos continues to soar at 25.8 percent in 2014; from 24.6 percent in 2013. Figures from the National Statistics Coordination Board (NSCB) for 2009-2015 shows Filipino women remain more economically, politically and socially disadvantaged compared to men. Women continue to lag behind men in work and economic participation, with women’s labor force participation rate at 50.3 percent while men at 78.4 percent in 2014. Women with land ownership agreements only account for 33 percent against men’s 67 percent.

APEC’s agenda have drastic impacts on women. APEC’s thrust on “women and the economy” has left behind women from marginalized and poor segments of the population, such as indigenous women, peasant and rural women, women workers, migrant women, women with disabilities, women of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expressions (SOGIE), among others. Far from being benign and neutral, policies foster discrimination against women. They perpetuate women’s subordinate status in the economy and in society. APEC’s objectives obstruct national development and multiply the burdens women already bear.

APEC and other neoliberal platforms speak of mainstreaming gender indicators in their programs and funding mechanisms without challenging its economic framework that drives majority of women to extreme poverty from the policies of liberalization, privatization and deregulation that APEC and other neoliberal economic instruments have espoused through the years. APEC remains to contribute to the continuous concentration of wealth for the few. APEC’s economic paradigm is unethical and harmful to our natural resources, structured against the interests of the poor and violent to the rights of women.

The Cost of APEC to Women:

1. Women bear the impacts of reduced government spending for social services

APEC reinforces profit-oriented agenda that subsist on turning social services into a profit-generating scheme. Women are disproportionately hit by privatization and reduction of public expenditures on social services. Women take up unpaid reproductive work for the family more so when public health facilities are unavailable or when medical fees are beyond their means. Under a neoliberal regime, women pay the price through an increase in unpaid labor in the home where gender bias is deeply entrenched — assuming that women’s time can be stretched at will and that there will always be an unlimited supply of free female labor to draw from.

2. APEC’s reinforces exploitation and commodification of women’s work and bodies.

Opportunities for women to earn a living that trade liberalization may have provided come at a great cost. APEC’s economic growth framework pushes women into precarious work or dirty, demeaning, dangerous (3D) jobs. Women occupy lower positions and receive lower wages than their male counterparts. It compounds women’s vulnerability to sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Greater participation in informal and formal production indicates that women not only work double shifts but multiple shifts that lengthen labor hours at the expense of their health and overall well-being. An increase of women‘s labor participation based on exploiting the lower costs of their market labor raises cannot but raise questions of gender equity and justice.

Women are always sidelined in the formal economy. Their participation is hindered by unequal distribution of power and income, and burdened by domestic and often unpaid responsibilities. With barriers in formal work, women are largely in home-based work where women’s care work is exploited. Women are increasingly found in the informal economy with no formal employment contracts, no social protection, and other protections and benefits accorded to workers in formal labor.

The APEC encourages labor export policies that promote and reinforce women’s care work feeding into the global demand. Migrating for work even under risky conditions and oppressive terms of employment has been a trend that fuels the economies of rich countries. For women who remain in the country, they embark on enterprising initiatives that are often misunderstood as a sign of empowerment.

3. APEC’s agenda leads to further marginalization of women

Women in informal economy whose number is increasing due to necessity and not due to increased opportunities provided for in a neoliberal economy. The pervasiveness of poverty in the neoliberal economy pushes women to depend on their resourcefulness to help their families and their communities through entrepreneurial initiatives that rarely receive sustainable and appropriate support that recognizes their vulnerabilities and care responsibilities.

Women with disabilities are pushed even further to the periphery of marginalization with limited opportunities in employment or lack of source of income, much less a broader role in the economy and development are absolutely non-existent, a result of multiple discrimination in education, health, social protection and inaccessible public infrastructure and services.

Filipino lesbian, bisexual woman, and trans man (LBT) workers are found in precarious situation both in the Philippines and abroad. LBTs are forced to accept unjust working conditions from employers who find creative ways to circumvent the labor standards, not to mention their unreasonable hiring requirements that are no longer based on merit or competency. Workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression is a day-to-day struggle that compounds employment problems, and compels LBTs to work in the informal sector or work abroad.

4. Trade liberalization results in displacement of small local farmers and food producers, many of whom are women.

APEC’s market and trade-oriented schemes encroached upon women and their communities’ resources including land, agriculture, coastal and marine ecosystems, and ancestral domains. Natural resources are commodified and given price tags – land, water, forest, minerals and air. The large-scale mining operations, dubious forest rehabilitations programs, large-scale dam projects, coal-fired thermal power plants, geothermal plants – all pave the way for wrestling control and management of the resources by corporations from communities especially rural, coastal, and indigenous communities. These resources are offered to investors under deceptive processes, often without free, prior and informed consent from the communities especially indigenous peoples.

This corporate-led development model makes women from marginalized and poor communities such as the indigenous, urban poor, rural communities hungrier, and poorer. Corporate control of the global food system results in a food centralized system that threatens local women producers’ contribution in the economy, while making food prices more unaffordable for poor families.

As poor and marginalized women and their communities resist the pervasive encroachment of their resources, and violations of their economic, social and cultural rights including their right to work — this then makes them targets of threats, harassments and killings, by armed groups including that of the government, private army, and paramilitary groups. Women and indigenous people’s groups documented at least 38 indigenous women and men killed under the Aquino administration because of the defense of their lands and resources.

Indigenous women and their families and communities are most adversely affected in this commodification of our resources, as they rely on these resources for their livelihood, and their survival as a community and as a people. The indigenous women, who are often not part of negotiations and decision-making processes, are made more vulnerable as they deal with the impacts of the destruction of their food sources, their dislocation from their livelihood, the desecration of their sacred sites, the displacement of their families and communities. Most of the indigenous women are food producers, but with their land taken away from them, and without access to forest, they are forced to take on low-paying, insecure work.

Women’s Alternatives

APEC’s agenda failed to guarantee redistributive, economic, gender, social and environmental justice, and accountability to the people. It did not create the necessary conditions for gender equality. Instead, APEC promoted profit-driven initiatives at the expense of human rights and interest of marginalized and poor communities. With APEC identifying itself with member economies rather than nation-states, it inherently does not touch on issues of human and social rights, women’s economic, social and cultural rights. Governments are drawn to abdicate their roles and obligations for the rights and well-being of their people.

An alternative to the neoliberal agenda is one that puts women’s rights and interests of the poor and marginalized at the center. The development framework should also include meaningful participation of peoples in all its processes, especially women, and marginalized sectors from poor and remote communities; and a development scheme that puts in place effective accountability and redress mechanisms for human rights violations.

• Recognition, respect, and support to the rights of the indigenous peoples to their ancestral domains, and self-determination. With this, all forms of violence, harassment and killings should be stopped, and perpetrators be made accountable, and justice will be served to all the victims and their families. The culture of impunity should be broken. Political, economic and social support should be provided by the government to the customary governance and management of the natural resources within their domains, led by a strong, dynamic, democratic and non-discriminatory indigenous political structure and processes.
• Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) should be respected and strictly implemented both by government and corporations. Both indigenous women and men should have substantive participation in these processes.
• Stop commodification and eliminate contractualization of labor. Review and amend labor and migration policies to ensure protection of the Filipino workers’ including workers of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expressions (SOGIE) right to work with dignity and not as commodities fit for export.
• Create full, gender-responsive gainful employment, and livelihood especially for poor and marginalized women and their communities which should be provided regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, disability, class, among others
• Empower women-led solidarity economy and social enterprises which serve as a counter to traditional businesses where wealth is concentrated to a few. These women-led solidarity economy and social enterprises center on addressing poverty through wealth redistribution, building upon natural capital, social and labor skills that have benefited women, their families, their communities and society at large. It facilitates meaningful process of economic empowerment while addressing the most compelling of social problems including rural poverty, water and health sanitation, disability, food security, and joblessness.
• Food Security must be achieved where self-sufficiency in food is the main goal. Food Security for all women is not possible in a world liberalized economy where the relationship between food consumers and food producers where women do not have control over/access to land and other resources, and their labor is not accounted for.
• Abdicate trade policies that harm women and repeal laws discriminatory against women.

Reconfigure the economy and instill a paradigm shift that does not privilege economic growth that only benefits big, corporate-led and profit-oriented businesses. Put peoples, especially the poor and marginalized including women at the front and center of development– paving the way to a more sustainable, nurturing, community-focused development. ###


Philwomen on ASEAN. FDC Women. World March of Women. Working Group on Women’s ESCR. Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA). Coalition against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP). Foundation for a Sustainable Society, Inc. (FSSI). GALANG Philippines. Integrated Rural Development Foundation (IRDF). LILAK (Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights). Philippine Coalition on the UNCRPD. SENTRO Women. Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau (WLB).