Women working in an Indonesian field


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Webinar: Corporate Power and Gender Justice

To mark International Human Rights Day, on 10 December 2015, AWID organized an online webinar on corporate power and gender justice.


  • Over 80 women’s rights and feminist activists participated in the discussion on how to resist and challenge corporate power in development, in the struggles for gender, social and environmental justice.
  • Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are now global corporations.
  • 5 expert panelists consider the growing power of these entities in demanding control over key development policies - including labor laws, finance, public health, food and agriculture, safety regulations, taxes and international trade and investment- and propose ways to resist and challenge corporate power from a women’s rights and gender equality perspective.
  • Strengthening solidarity and collaboration across social movements emerged as the absolute pre-requisite to stop corporate abuse and co-optation of development agendas: from feminists, to labor, to financial transparency and human rights movements, the struggle requires coordination on many fronts.

Full audio of the webinar:

Highlights from the webinar panelists

Susan George1, Transnational Institute (TNI)

Susan explained the power of transnational corporations worldwide and the threats they present to social justice and democratic societies

  • Transnational corporations are clearly well organized to protect their interests. They coordinate lobby efforts through different foundations (e.g. grouped by sectors like the automobile industries) that are extremely well financed to influence policies directly affecting their interests.

  • The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) among 12 Pacific Rim countries, are both gigantic trade agreements that could put corporations in control of who makes international trade rules.

  • If ratified, both will put the United States at the center of about 3/4 of world trade and 2/3 of world’s gross domestic product (GDP) - a move to counter the power of China and the BRICS. By all indications, if these agreements are ratified, the lives of millions of people in the Pacific will be negatively affected. What we consider essential protection for the environment, labor rights or welfare, will only be uncomfortable regulations to corporations.

  • Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) are part of these agreements too. They allow corporations to sue governments if they don’t like the regulations they have, and they can win. It is a one-way system (governments cannot sue the corporations) that allows no appeal. There is no accountability and thus is an assault on our democracy. It is crucial at this time for Pacific developing countries from Latina America and Asia to avoid ratification of these agreements.

  • Unity, unity, unity! – Women’s rights activists must join forces with civil society coalitions to broaden our horizons and work together to resist corporate power. Unless we’re organized across the board, it’s will only get worse.

Barbara Adams2, Global Policy Forum

Barbara focused on the growing influence of corporations inside the United Nations (UN) system.

  • The UN is not immune to the growing power of corporations around the globe. Responsibility to implement development policies is shifting from governments to corporations. This was evident at the latest climate change conference in Paris and the discussions on the post-2015 agenda pushing for public-private partnerships.

  • This context is the result of the failure of traditional donor policies funding the UN. Rich countries failed to provide the necessary resources to push forward UN agendas and for the single projects that they do provide, they see the UN as a contractor (e.g. “We’ll give you x amount of money if you do this”).

  • Despite their growing influence at the UN, corporations are not actually contributing a lot of money to the UN, compared to their income. The budget figures for UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are examples, where Coca Cola contributed 3.4 million to two project areas over the last 5 years. But Coca Cola’s annual advertising budget is 3.4 billion.

  • We should not give up on the conversation about the importance of public finance to support key issues like women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, or labor rights. We cannot let UN agendas be dependent on what happens with the markets nor apply a totally market-driven approach to development agendas.

  • Fiscal policy justice, in particular corporate tax, needs to be brought back to the center of feminist resistance to corporate power to reclaim public funding.

  • Part of the conversation we need to have within the women’s movement is not just about the decline of funding but where money is coming from and for what.

Marieke Koning, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

Marieke explained what global unions are doing to ‘tame’ corporate power

  • The trade union movement has ‘power from within’ that cannot be underestimated. Unions can build alliances among workers across borders especially if they work for the same employer, this is happening for instance within transnational corporations like IKEA.

  • Unions are taming corporate power by making employers accountable to collective bargaining and social dialogue based on hard fought fundamental labor rights and existing accountability mechanisms.

  • Some of the key tools used are the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Also the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and of course the ILO Conventions and Standards that include the ILO Declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy.

  • Protection of the right to organize in trade unions and the right to collective bargaining are key in ITUC’s struggles.

  • There are some examples of good practice: In Chile, Starbucks signed a collective bargaining agreement with unions after strong protest from young trade unionists and international solidarity following the companies’ anti-union stand. A union in Colombia challenged the power of supermarket giant Carrefour by negotiating the countries’ first ever collective agreement in the retail sector, with women workers at the forefront of this struggle

  • There are experiences of global framework agreements negotiated between multinational companies and global unions. Many are based on core ILO conventions, which have improved working conditions from many around the world. The well document case is in the garment sector in Bangladesh, following the Rana Plaza building disaster in 2013. A legally binding agreement between trade unions in Bangladesh, global unions and 200 international brands and retailers aims to ensure a safe and healthy environment, independent extension program, public disclosure of all factory inspection reports, a democratically elected health committee in every factory and worker’s empowerment through an extensive training program.

  • Besides holding corporations accountable, governments should also be held accountable. For example: several governments bypass labor laws to attract foreign direct investment, or want to reconfigure categories of workers – like migrant workers- to have a different status.

Lissette Miller, Financial Transparency Coalition (FTC)

Lissette focused on why it’s important to push for financial regulation and transparency

  • Governments are losing out on taxes that corporations should be paying, which is undermining countries’ ability to provide quality, accessible and affordable social services that women need the most

  • Corporate tax evasion is rampant and most get away with not paying taxes. This is also unfair to small business owners who generally tend to be women.

  • We need a global tax body under the United Nations. Despite its challenges, the UN is still the best global universal forum, where every country has a say. The US and EU argued against the creation of the tax body at the Addis Ababa Financing for Development Conference in July 2015, but there was mass collaboration between all the other countries and social movements to continue the push.

  • It is our duty, as citizens and as feminists, to educate ourselves and find out where the money is going. Follow that money trail; find out what methods corporations are using to evade the responsibilities they have to the communities they depend on for their business. We need to find where to plug in locally and globally.

  • FTC works in six areas:

    1. Country by country reporting: Corporations profit from loopholes that allow shifting money from one country to the next, often through a tax haven. Corporations must provide individual public reports for each country where they operate;

    2. Beneficial ownership: Many companies are anonymous, making it difficult to know who is the real owner or beneficiary. This is often to disguise illegal business and move money, un-detected, to accounts in the EU and USA. By ensuring public access to who is behind corporate power, investigators around the world can peel down the layers of power.

    3. Automatic exchange of information: Tens of trillions of dollars are held offshore, money untaxed and unaccounted for (about 33% of all assets in the Middle East and Africa are held offshore). Automatic exchange information would allow government authorities to know the scope of assets offshore.

    4. International institutional architecture: Who is making the rules for global finance? Low-income countries hardly have a say even if they are the most affected by illicit flows.

    5. Open data: ensure the public has access to information without the complicated jargon

    6. Enabler of illicit financial flows: Unveiling the actual people who are enabling the dirty deals to hide their money

Lissette’s PPT presentation

Tatiana Béjar, International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-NET)

Tatiana, touched on entry points for corporate accountability and how feminist organizations can participate more actively.

  • This is a key moment to act, and denounce the way corporate power is affecting human rights, and women’s rights in particular, but we cannot build resistance without the strategies and experiences happening at the local level.

  • There are numerous examples of corporate abuses to human rights, in particular relating to access to resources, and impacting indigenous communities the most. Land grabbing and forced evictions by corporations are coupled with the environmental impact of extractive industries. But it is important to highlight how women are organizing at the local level from Papua New Guinea, to Cambodia and Brazil to challenge neoliberal notions of development and funding.

  • On of the biggest advocacy entry points to push for legally binding corporate accountability is taking place at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). An open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) was established in 2014 to elaborate on a treaty to regulate “transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” This presents a unique opportunity to have an actual global mechanism, though may take years to be established.

  • A civil society and human rights movement initiative called the Treaty Initiative coordinated by ESCR-net and the FIDH (Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme) is already at work to issue recommendations to this working group that will meet in mid 2016.

  • The Treaty Initiative is a collaborative effort of a group of human rights organizations and networks, including women’s rights groups. The initiative is currently holding regional consultations with social and community leaders, many of them women-led, to feed in the recommendations for the IGWG that will meet in Geneva in 2016.

  • Some of the issues that need to be addressed in a legally binding treaty are, restitution to communities for human rights violations perpetrated by corporations; due diligence; and access to justice with particular reference to impacts on women and indigenous peoples.

  • To make sure a women’s rights perspective is integrated in the work of the HRCs IGWG, it is important to ensure the greatest participation of feminist organizations in this process.

Tatiana’s presentation

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1 You can read more about this issue in Susan’s George book: “Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power
2 You can read more about this in the publication “Fit for whose purpose? Private funding and corporate influence in the United Nations” by Barbara Adams and Jens Martens