A critical assessment: Can Export Processing Zones be transformed into catalytic enclaves for Women’s Economic Empowerment?

In 2011, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) partnered with the World Bank Gender Action Plan and the Government of Canada to publish a study positing the rather novel idea that Special Economic Zones (SEZs – more commonly known as Export Processing Zones or EPZs) might serve as a vehicle for women’s economic empowerment.

The study, entitled Fostering Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Special Economic Zones, provides a comparative analysis of SEZs in eight countries (Bangladesh, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, El Salvador, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines) and discusses different SEZ initiatives (as well as opportunities and obstacles) that have been developed to contribute to the economic empowerment of women.  The IFC argues that SEZs can contribute to women’s economic empowerment through three dimensions:  (1) fair employment and working conditions; (2) equal access to opportunities for professional investment; and (3) extension of investment opportunities for women.

My recent working paper, A critical assessment:  Can Export Processing Zones be transformed into catalytic enclaves for Women’s Economic Empowerment, considers this novel idea from an international employment and women’s rights perspective.

The idea that EPZs might be utilized as instruments to improve working women’s lives is counter-intuitive.   EPZs have a reputation for sub-standard working conditions and exploitation because they are frequently exempted from local labor laws and other workplace protections.  They are also considered to be a sub-optimal economic development mechanism by the OECD and others.  On the other hand, the IFC’s study points to a number of examples of innovative programs that can be adopted by EPZ administrators – and contains enough frank analysis of obstacles to using EPZ governance structures to empower women – to make its recommendations worth considering.

After assessing the IFC’s idea in light of recent literature discussing the challenges facing workers in EPZs, I come to a somewhat guardedly optimistic conclusion that SEZs and EPZs might serve as a vehicle for policies and programs designed to empower women – but only if EPZ administrators and policy makers change attitudes about independent trade unions and work in partnership with workers, representative trade unions and women’s rights organizations.

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