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A Feminist Future means Solidarity with Workers

Corporate Accountability is a feminist issue.

Ivy Josiah (Malaysian Feminist Activist and APWLD member), Nazma Akhtar, (Awaj, Bangladesh), Daisy Arago (Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights, Philippines), and Kate Lappin (APWLD, Thailand –Regional Coordinator) drew out the connections between capitalist exploitation, corporate accountability and labour movement activism at this year’s AWID International Forum in Bahia, Brazil.

The discussion began with a brief description of current problems facing women labourers around the world. Filipina activist Daisy Arago described the ways in which multinational corporations (MNCs) are able to escape responsibility for human rights violations and exploitative labour practices. The growing power of corporations manifests in a poorly regulated international business environment in which MNCs rarely feel accountable to the local or national laws, nor to the environmental consequences of business.

The exploitation of women’s labour

Arago particularly stressed that corporations continue to operate on the exploitation of Third World people, with a particular investment in the exploitation of women. Currently, women occupy 75% of the workers in special economic zones (also known as export processing zones) in industries such as garment work and the service sector. These women tend to be the the most exploited members of their societies and primarily working in the global South. Despite women’s heavy presence in these industries, unions are rarely present or have often failed women in fighting for their rights as workers. Women rarely have full benefits, if any at all, and tend to work long hours in dire conditions.

Women labourers also face sexual harassment within and outside work places and economic zones. They use their bodies and time to labour, but are met with physical and economic violence at the hands of their employers and other male bodies in their work environments. Given the lack of support from male-dominated unions and oppressive employers, Arago highlighted the importance of women workers advocating and organizing in defense of their rights. 

Corporations skirting government policy and legislation

Bangladeshi organiser and advocate Nazma Akhtar, who began working as a garment worker at 12 years old, discussed the global supply chain system, in which Asia contributes 80% of the production with the help of women and children’s cheap labour. She argued that the strong presence of corporate culture (the majority of Bangladesh’s  members of parliament tend to either be connected to business owners or be involved in business themselves) often creates an unsafe working environment for women and children. In some instances, the financial power of multinational companies far outweigh national Gross Domestic Products, making it difficult for local governments to challenge or hold MNCs accountable. For example, in 2013, more than 1000 workers were killed at the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. Yet multi-national corporations escaped culpability and convictions for local owners or government officials who declared the building safe have yet to be recorded. Women workers are often blacklisted for protest, which makes it more difficult for them to demand justice.

Ultimately, Akhtar argued that many governments in the global south are implicated in the exploitation of women workers. She passionately called for governments to actively protect women’s freedom of association rather than the political lip service that they are often given. Women are the backbone of the global economy, with the power to transform labour practices through their mobilization.

A long history of corporate abuse

Regional Coordinator for the Asian Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD -Thailand), Kate Lappin was instrumental in providing a historical and in-depth account of how corporations have become more powerful than governments and international human rights law. She argued that we have moved away from a system that we assumed was just in terms of holding corporations accountable, towards an “architecture” that allows corporations to transform their structures and outsource their legal  responsibilities. This third party outsourcing of production happens primarily through supply chains, whereby key actors do not have to be held accountable for occupational health and safety conditions - that would allow a building to collapse or people to be exploited, for example.

Similar to Akthar, Lappin emphasized a deliberate design of corporate cultures and legal systems that allow for this type of exploitation to continue. Despite their obligations to contribute to development through taxes, corporations have been able to use a range of global systems to avoid paying taxes (i.e. “tax havens”). Another challenge in holding corporations accountable is that the majority of global trade happens within and between corporations, as backdoor deals in which public consultation is seldom required or desired. Corporations are often able to pay off local governments to turn a blind-eye to exploitation.

Further, private-public partnerships often end up indebting governments to major corporations, which further challenges the possibility of accountability. This shift from state-based economies to corporate debt means that citizens often lose their governments to the wealthy business world. Lappin argues that this indebtedness to the coffers of multinationals speaks to a fundamental loss of democratic structures that protect citizens and labourers.

Currently, roughly 62 people own more wealth than 50% of the world’s population. Lappin explained how this wealth has been accumulated through unsavoury business practices and strategies designed to weaken managed economies. For example, the Powell Memo commissioned by the United States Chamber of Commerce as a response and a defense against the rise of the welfare state that grew in the post WWII period. This memo detailed a deliberate strategy to allow the corporate sector to recapture resources and the democratic process. The memo set out a how to re-shape university institutions, the global narrative of economics, capture the media and re-shape financial instruments for the purposes of acquiring capital.  These strategies created support for trade agreements that were catastrophic for ordinary people who did not have a share in the world’s profits.

Similarly, Lappin explained how the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) a procedure created in the post-war decolonization phase, pushed for investor protection from government which has contributed to an unaccountable global business environment. This ISDS clause, originally referred to as the “Magna Carta for investors” by drafters including Deutsche Bank, became a staple in most global trade agreements, which meant that corporations were able to bind governments to neoliberal policies. Government laws such as regulating minimum wage, increased taxes and demanding the delivery of water have all been successfully challenged by corporate lawsuits claiming a  loss profits as a result of these implementations. Lappin pointed out that this clause often allowed corporations to sue states if they pass laws, regulations, policies that corporations believe will affect their profits. The immediate process functions as a secretive tribunal with corporate lawyers, whereby the rule of law generally does not apply; this arbitration process often sides with large corporations, sometimes meting out billions of dollars in restitution.

Unfortunately, for the most part the media has not brought light to these violations. During the Q&A of the session, an audience member inquired about the role of news media sources in highlighting the plight of low-skilled workers in economic zones. Panelists felt that media outlets were often ambivalent towards the violence that workers experience. For example, the influence of government cronies in business often means that the financial backing of media companies prevents them from objectively reporting the human rights abuses of multinational corporations.


Naturally, audience members were curious to know the possible solutions to the lack of corporate accountability and gross exploitation. Panelists pointed to the importance of grassroots organizing and labour unions to advocate on behalf of exploited workers. Akthar stressed the need for male-dominated unions to allow women to speak, while Lappin argued that our responses should be cross-movement and multi-sectoral.

Some of the other solutions that panelists suggested included:

  • The need to build movements to confront and shift power across political preoccupations and issues. Creating a binding instrument that could regulate transnational corporate power
  • Looking to national-leveling consumer movements
  • Governments do not necessarily see feminists as natural allies; we need to open doors and make connections
  • Demanding human rights and gender impact assessments on all trade agreements
  • Alternative trade agreements – reshaping them to be more mutually shared
  • Consumer responsibility – more than 70% of consumers are thinking about quality and price
  • Global strike or movement
  • Redistributive justice

Ultimately, corporate accountability, labour exploitation and the degradation of our ecosystem at the hands of multinational companies are enormous issues that are currently defining our lives and our futures. Panelists at the AWID 2016 Forum session on Corporate Accountability called for a complete overhaul of how we understand labour, women’s empowerment and global justice.

Indeed, feminist futures will require our critical attention to the abuse of global business conglomerates that continue to deny the rights of women labourers and create class exploitation.

A feminist future demands economic justice and solidarity with labourers across the world.

About the author

Rita is a PhD student and feminist writer who lives in Toronto. Her research interests include African migration, transnational youth identities and gender politics within African immigrant communities.

From October 10 to October 16 the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development is holding a regional week of action against the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

AWID Forum