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DDG Ellard: WTO is taking action to make trade work for women

In her keynote speech to the WTO Chairs Programme webinar “Inclusive Trade: Legal and Economic Perspectives on Gender and Employment” on 17 December, Deputy-Director General Angela Ellard discussed ways in which trade policy can contribute to women’s economic empowerment. She underlined recent developments institutionalizing the issue of gender in the WTO and emphasized the importance of the research on trade and gender conducted under the Chairs Programme. The full text of her speech is below.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be part of this event launching a very important project of the WTO Chairs Programme, which explores the intersections between trade, employment, and decent work for women.

The global economy is not gender-neutral. Evidence shows that women represent 38% of the global workforce, yet they receive only 77% of what men earn worldwide. Globally, 606 million women provide unpaid care on a full-time basis, compared to only 41 million men.

Trade is not gender-neutral either. Women face higher obstacles than men in accessing the global market and the economic opportunities created by trade. Women entrepreneurs face higher trade costs than men, which prevent them from going international. As a result, only 1 in 5 female-owned small businesses is exporting.

Gender inequalities are rampant, and the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the existing gaps between men and women to a point that, in today’s world, so many women are set back economically and socially. Women lost more than 64 million jobs last year, a 5% loss, compared to 3.9% loss for men. Yet, only 9% of all measures taken to mitigate the COVID-19’s impact target women’s economic security.

Women entrepreneurs have been de facto excluded from many relief packages set up by governments because they condition access to requirements that women entrepreneurs, who often run smaller businesses, cannot meet. The majority of them are self-employed, and many work from home, which makes it impossible for them to access the relief measures, which are often limited to companies above a certain number of employees.

We can change this paradigm through trade. Inclusive trade can open the door to women’s employment, decent work, and economic empowerment. Trade can make a difference by lifting women, and therefore their families, out of poverty.

In fact, firms that trade internationally employ more women.

Worldwide, women represent 33% of the workforce of exporting firms, compared with 24% of non-exporting firms. Moreover, women constitute 36% of the workforce of firms involved in global value chains and 38% of the workforce of foreign-owned firms. This is 11 and 12 percentage points more than the proportion in firms that are not part of global value chains and are domestically-owned firms.

In some countries, such as Morocco, Romania, and Vietnam, women represent 50% or more of the workforce of exporting firms, thus creating jobs for more than 5 million women in these countries. And this is roughly 15% of the female population working in these countries.

Trade can also free women from the informal sector, where women are often concentrated, and the risks associated with it. For example, in Afghanistan, 96% of women-owned businesses are unlicensed. Working in the informal sector leaves women without the protection of labor laws and deprives them of social benefits. Women work for lower wages and in unsafe conditions. Trade offers them the opportunity to work more safely and conduct their businesses in the formal sector. According to our joint study with the World Bank, women are 20% more likely to work informally in sectors with low levels of exports compared with 13% in sectors with high levels of exports.

While this is interesting data, we need to understand what is actually behind these statistics. And what’s behind is global trade rules and trade agreements, including those concluded at the WTO. So, let me now elaborate on how trade fosters employment for women and improves women’s working conditions.

First of all, trade policy can create opportunities for women to enter the workforce.

In the last decades, a majority of WTO members have designed gender-responsive trade policies that promote women’s employment. Such policies are aimed at supporting economic growth and development, or even responding to shortfalls in the workforce in export-oriented sectors by hiring women, thus continuing to drive their economies. Nigeria, for instance, fostered women’s participation in the construction sector, where a labour shortage was identified. Similarly, in Zambia, women were encouraged to work in the male-dominated mining sector.

Many governments include women’s economic empowerment and their integration in the job market as a key priority in their national trade and investment strategies.

They mostly use financial incentives to achieve this target. For example, some trade policies envisage financial support to key export sectors to hire women. Others focus on re-integrating women who are on career breaks or reducing the number of women leaving the workforce because of childbirth. Some trade policies also have made women’s employment a criterion for eligibility for grants.

By supporting women entrepreneurs, WTO members also support women’s employment.

For example, some trade policies provide financial incentives in the form of tax credits to encourage small businesses to re-employ women disconnected from employment. While these incentives are provided to both male- and female-owned small businesses, governments can also support women’s employment by targeting women entrepreneurs.

In addition, businesswomen themselves employ a vast number of female workers. Data from WTO regional surveys in South Asia, East Africa, and Latin America show that in companies with fewer than 10 employees, which are vastly owned by women, 57% of workers are female.

Moreover, trade policy can balance the scale in favour of women by reducing gender discrimination and creating more decent work conditions.

Some trade policies have had the result of socially empowering women.

Trade policy can transform unpaid domestic work and care into paid work. For example, Japan opened its services sectors to foreign housekeepers, with a view to promoting women’s participation in society, meeting their need for assistance for housework, encouraging economic growth, and creating jobs for other women.

Trade policy can reduce wage gaps between men and women. For example, Switzerland’s government procurement policy has conditioned the allocation of contracts to companies that have and implement an internal wage equality policy.

Some trade policies, while not primarily targeting women’s economic empowerment, have resulted in better working conditions for female employees and even better social laws base on gender equality. This is the case in the Philippines where the government took measures in support of its business process outsourcing (or back-office services) sector. Initially, these measures were meant to support the sector at large, but more than 55% of the industry’s workers are female. Thus, the measures aimed to boost the sector had a positive effect on gender equality.

In many countries women have been banned from certain professions due to their physically demanding or dangerous nature. This has kept women away from higher-paid work in traditionally male-dominated sectors. But the tide is turning. To give but a few recent examples, in 2018, Ukraine, where the gender pay gap is 20%, abolished the list of 458 jobs from which women were legally barred. Kazakhstan, where women earn on average 32% less than men, did the same a few months ago. Among the more than 200 professions previously denied to women were relatively well-paid jobs in construction, mining, and oil extraction sectors. This is an important step as women earn 3 times more in such male dominated sectors.

My next point is that issues related to women’s employment have been addressed in some trade agreements.

Some regional trade agreements, especially more recent ones, contain gender provisions and even chapters. They recognise women’s contribution to economic growth, sustainable development, and socio-economic transformation.

Some agreements establish gender equality in the workplace as a key objective. Others outline a “toolbox” of measures, such as capacity-building and skills enhancement of women at work; programmes promoting gender equality within enterprises; collecting and using gender disaggregated labour statistics; or ensuring the stability of employment and professional progress for women workers through technologies.

Some trade agreements also address women’s working conditions focussing on childcare, nursing mothers; the prevention of gender-based workplace violence and harassment; and the elimination of gender discrimination in employment.

The WTO is playing its part too.

Since 2017, two thirds of our membership has been exploring how trade can support women’s economic empowerment. Over the past year, these members have crafted the WTO’s first formal Declaration on trade and gender equality — a Declaration supported so far by 121 WTO members, to be adopted at the WTO 12th Ministerial Conference when it takes place.

Through this Declaration, these members are taking action in areas crucial to advance women’s economic empowerment through trade, such as gender-disaggregated data collection, trade policy making, Aid for Trade, and female leadership. This Declaration gives the WTO a strong mandate to work on trade and gender.

Another positive development is an inclusion of a non-discrimination provision into the Services Domestic Regulation plurilateral agreement, which was concluded a few weeks ago among 67 WTO Members. This provision prohibits gender discrimination in the context of authorization procedures for service suppliers. And this is the first gender equality provision in a WTO-negotiated outcome.

These developments further institutionalize the issue of gender in the WTO, transforming the Organization from a gender-blind to a gender-responsive one.

To conclude, I would like to highlight the Treaty of Versailles of 1920, which establishes the principle of universal peace and stipulates that it can be achieved only if it is based on social justice. And it adds that one of the components of social justice is the protection of women.

I am sure you are asking yourselves why am I quoting from this Treaty? What’s the relationship with trade? Well, this Preamble sits on the wall of the main entrance to the WTO building. I believe this message from the past carries a lot of weight, especially today as the COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the economic security of so many women and as societies struggle to protect them.

I therefore cannot emphasize enough the importance of the research on trade and gender conducted under the auspices of our Chairs Programme. The WTO is acting to make trade work for women, and when women do better, societies do better.

Thank you.

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Related News

The Davos Agenda virtual event offers the first global platform of 2022 for world leaders to come together to share their visions for the year ahead.

The week long virtual event, taking place on the World Economic Forum website and social media channels 17-21 January 2022, will feature heads of state and government, CEOs and other leaders. They will discuss the critical challenges facing the world today and present their ideas on how to address them.

The event will also mark the launch of several Forum initiatives including efforts to accelerate the race to net-zero emissions, ensure the economic opportunity of nature-positive solutions, create cyber resilience, strengthen global value chains, build economies in fragile markets through humanitarian investing, bridge the vaccine manufacturing gap and use data solutions to prepare for the next pandemic.

“Everyone hopes that in 2022 the COVID-19 pandemic, and the crises that accompanied it, will finally begin to recede,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. “But major global challenges await us, from climate change to rebuilding trust and social cohesion. To address them, leaders will need to adopt new models, look long term, renew cooperation and act systemically. The Davos Agenda 2022 is the starting point for the dialogue needed for global cooperation in 2022.”

Davos Agenda 2022 participants

World leaders delivering “State of the World” Special Addresses will include:

  • Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India
  • Kishida Fumio, Prime Minister of Japan
  • António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations
  • Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission
  • Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia
  • Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia
  • Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister of Israel
  • Janet L. Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States
  • Yemi Osinbajo, Vice-President of Nigeria.

The programme will also feature speakers including:

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency
  • José Pedro Castillo Terrones, President of Peru
  • Ivan Duque, President of Colombia
  • Anthony S. Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health of the United States of America
  • Yasmine Fouad, Minister of Environment of Egypt
  • Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF)
  • Alejandro Giammattei, President of Guatemala
  • Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States (1993-2001) and Chairman and Co-Founder, Generation Investment Management
  • Paulo Guedes, Minister of Economy of Brazil
  • Paula Ingabire, Minister of Information Communication Technology and Innovation of Rwanda
  • Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda
  • John F. Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate of the United States of America
  • Haruhiko Kuroda, Governor of the Bank of Japan
  • Christine Lagarde,President, European Central Bank
  • Guillermo Lasso, President of Ecuador
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General, World Trade Organization (WTO)
  • Abdulaziz Bin Salman Bin AbdulazizAl Saud, Minister of Energy of Saudi Arabia
  • Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, European Commission
  • François Villeroy de Galhau, Governor of the Central Bank of France
  • Sarah bint Yousif Al-Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology, Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology of the United Arab Emirates.

Davos Agenda 2022 sessions and launches

Conversations will focus on critical collective challenges across several key areas:

Climate action

Climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss are ranked the top three most-severe risks for the world over the next decade, according to the Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022, published 11 January 2022.

Top 10 Global Risks by Severity 2022
Climate-related risks top the list of global risks by severity.
Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2022

For a brief moment, a drop in emissions in 2020 proved climate action is possible – and the collective response to COVID-19 is evidence that, if we work together, it’s not too late to save the planet. This requires reaching net zero, achieving the energy transition, committing to circular economies and sustainable consumption and – above all – putting climate and nature at the heart of recovery plans.

Global cooperation

The recent years have seen deepened political and social divides as well as a heightened mistrust of institutions and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. We must renew our commitment to global cooperation and shared prosperity – from vaccine equity to wherever the new era of global space exploration may take us.

At the same time, the shocks of COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation of business and society ­– and innovations in vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and contact tracing have helped us to address the pandemic’s worst impacts. Looking ahead, technology holds the keys to solving the biggest challenges ahead of us: decarbonizing energydiagnosing and treating diseasesecuring our food supply and helping small businesses and entrepreneurs everywhere survive and thrive.

But this rapid digital transformation is not without risk, as we’ve seen cybercrime spike and digital divides widen in the past two years, too. We must work together to balance innovation and responsibility to ensure the digital transformation is driving growth and innovation, and not creating harm.

The Forum will release the Global Cybersecurity Outlook 2022 report on 18 January.

What to watch:

How to follow the Davos Agenda 2022

The event will be livestreamed across the Forum’s website and social media channels. All content will be shared using the official event hashtag #DavosAgenda.

Make sure to follow us on all of our platforms to stay up to date on key quotes, moments and news from the event:


Digital currencies are growing: the market is valued at more than $2 trillion and involves more than 15,000 varieties. In 2021, El Salvador even adopted Bitcoin as its legal currency.

While private digital currencies are blooming, central banks are catching up. In October 2021, Nigeria joined the Bahamas, the Eastern Caribbean States and Cambodia as one of the first jurisdictions to officially launch central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). Based on the Atlantic Council’s CBDC tracker, 14 countries have launched CBDC pilots while 16 countries are developing CBDCs and 41 are conducting research.

From precious metals to paper money, currencies are crucial for global trade and commerce. As society enters the digital age and more forms of digital currency compete for virality, what does it mean for international trade?

There are three potential ways digital currencies could change international trade:

1. Digital currencies could cause an increase in efficiency for cross-border payments

The speed of settlement for cross-border payments varies from the same business day to five business days. Human interaction is often required in the process of verifying the sender and recipient’s information, for example for anti-money laundering and combatting terrorism financing (AML and CTF) purposes. As a result, the speed of payment is often determined by how much the business hours of the sending institution and the receiving institution overlap; and whether the sending and receiving institutions rely on the same messaging standards.

For digital currencies that rely on decentralized ledgers, money could be sent and received within seconds and around the clock. Future regulatory compliance requirements on digital currency service providers and foreign exchange controls may have an impact on the speed.

2. Digital currencies could provide alternative credit information for trade finance

There’s a $1.7 trillion global trade financing gap, which heavily impacts SMEs who typically don’t have established financial records with banks. Public ledgers of digital currencies could be used to share payment and financial history to underwrite loans for import and export. At the same time, strong privacy protocols would need to be enforced in order to achieve this.

3. Digital currencies could alleviate the issues of de-risking

De-risking creates obstacles for countries perceived with high AML and CTF risks who want to participate in global trade and can increase the transaction costs for buyers and sellers in those countries. While digital currencies do not help reduce the risks of AML and CTF, they could provide alternative payment methods to allow consumers and merchants from those countries to be reconnected with international buyers and sellers.

What European countries are developing digital currencies?
What European countries are developing digital currencies?
Image: Statista/Atlantic Council

New issues caused by digital currencies

Despite their promising potential, digital currencies may not, however, solve some existing problems facing international trade and could raise new issues including:

  • Last-mile problems for financial inclusion: Financial inclusion will continue to be a problem for countries or communities that cannot afford the digital devices needed to hold digital currencies or do not have access to basic infrastructures such as electricity, internet, identification services or outlets to convert cash into digital formats. In the context of global trade, without the basic infrastructure, communities, and especially SMEs, that are excluded today will face an even greater challenge in a world where money is widely digitized.
  • Supply and demand of foreign exchange: It is debatable whether digital currencies could encourage all countries to trade more. While the potential benefits may help increase trade volume for certain countries, it does not change the fundamentals of international trade, which depend on comparative advantages. For countries that struggle with economic development or political stability, they may continue to face these challenges even with digital currencies. The currencies of those countries with limited trade with the outside world would remain undesirable. As a result, even if one type of digital currency gains global presence, converting that into local currency to allow for international trade may still be expensive and difficult if the demand for such local currency is limited internationally.
  • Implications for foreign direct investment (FDI): Many questions are raised by the intersection of cross-border investments and digital currency, as the current framework, such as the bilateral investment treaty (BIT) and the protections it offers, was built well before the age of digital currencies. Would digital currencies be considered as “covered investments” under BIT? Would BIT protections apply to investments made by and in digital currencies? How would the tokenization of FDI work under the current rules? Both states and foreign investors need guidance on these questions.

The international trade community needs to be prepared and capture the opportunities of this new age by closing the digital divide. As we head towards a new age where money and trade in goods and services are more and more digitized, it is crucial to ensure no one is left behind. Investments are needed to provide the right infrastructure for the future, to ensure accessible and affordable connectivity for all.

It is also important for policy-makers to work closely with the technical service providers behind digital currencies to fully understand the potential benefits and risks. Laws and regulations can then provide sufficient protection without stifling innovation. The digital currency governance consortium has provided a great example of public-private partnerships with more than 85 public and private organizations working together to address issues related to digital currencies.

Furthermore, the advancement of payments technology needs to be accompanied by the digitization of trade. A chain is as strong as its weakest link and with heavy reliance on paper documents and a lack of legal support for e-documents or e-signature, the benefits of digital currencies will be limited. Trade policy-makers need to focus on building the right physical and legal infrastructures to create trade for tomorrow.

To achieve the full potential of digital currencies, it will be crucial for countries to sign new types of trade agreements to enable market access for private issuers of digital currencies, to allow payments to operate in conjunction with each other, and to allow data to flow freely and with trust. Singapore, Australia, the UK, Chile and New Zealand have championed such forward-looking trade agreements.

While traditional financial institutions have started to offer settlement through digital currencies and some retailers have started to accept digital currencies, adoption on a large scale is still a long way off, particularly in the cross-border setting. There are yet many technical and regulatory challenges to overcome, ranging from issues of interoperability to the issues of AML, CTF and consumer protection. There’s no doubt, however, that we are entering the age of digital currency and more work needs to be done to allow participants of international trade to reap the benefits.


Find out about the world of digital labour platforms and the people who work on them, via our interactive map.


Digital labour platforms have become a common feature in today’s world and part of our everyday lives. Platforms have grown five-fold over the past decade and have become even more prominent since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online platforms provide businesses with a new way of outsourcing work to a global workforce. Platform work covers a range of tasks such as designing a website, developing software or training an algorithm. They are changing the way work is organised and regulated. According to an ILO study , digital platforms are creating new opportunities, particularly for women, young people, persons with disabilities and marginalised groups in different parts of the world.

However, digital platforms are also blurring the previously clear distinction between employees and the self-employed. Most of the time, workers are poorly paid, and their everyday experience is defined by algorithms. They also often lack access to traditional employment benefits such as social protection, paid leave, minimum wages and collective bargaining.

Consumers International

Every year, on March 15, the consumer movement celebrates World Consumer Rights Day, raising global awareness of consumer rights, consumer protection and empowerment. Consumers International is proud and privileged to coordinate this day of global collaboration, with 200 consumer advocacy members in over 100 countries. In 2021, 73 of our Members carried out local campaigns to ‘Tackle Plastic Pollution’. Collectively, we reached a total global audience of over 31 million consumers.


Today, Consumers International announce that the theme for World Consumer Rights Day 2022 is Fair Digital Finance.

The global consumer advocacy movement will call for fair digital finance for consumers everywhere. The movement will generate new consumer-centred insights and campaigns for digital finance that is inclusive, safe, data protected and private, and sustainable.

In a rapidly changing marketplace, World Consumer Rights Day will spark the first-ever global conversation, making the case for solutions that put consumer rights at the core of meaningful and long-lasting change.

About the theme

Digital technologies are reshaping payments, lending, insurance, and wealth management everywhere becoming a key enabler for consumers of financial services.

Digital financial services and financial technology have driven significant changes across the world:

  • By 2024, digital banking consumers are expected to exceed 3.6 billion(Juniper Research, 2020).
  • In the developing world, the proportion of account owners sending and receiving payments digitally has grown from 57% in 2014 to 70% in 2017(Findex 2017).
  • 39% of companies are making fintech adoption a high priority, highlighting the worldwide demand for a more innovative financial landscape  (JDSpura, 2020).

However, digital financial services have created new risks along with exacerbating traditional risks that can lead to unfair outcomes for consumers and leave those who are vulnerable behind in an increasingly cashless society.

There is strong evidence to suggest these risks have increased in recent years and crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic have enhanced these risks, where vulnerable consumers are more fragile due to economic hardship. Achieving fair digital finance for all requires a global, collaborative, and coordinated approach. The rapidly evolving and complex nature of digital financial services demonstrate the need for innovative regulatory approaches and digital financial services and products that centre consumer protection and empowerment.

It is more important now than ever to build on our knowledge and work together to understand what fair financial services looks like in a digital world, and what role consumer-centred financial services can play in global challenges like sustainability. 2022 will be a crucial moment for change with upcoming international policy moments such as the G20 and OECD review of High-level Principles on Financial Consumer Protection.

Our previous work in this area includes: “Banking on the Future: An Exploration of FinTech and the Consumer Interest” and “The role of consumer organisations to support consumers of financial services in low- and middle-income countries”.

Fair Digital Finance Summit (14-18 March 2022)

Consumers International will be hosting a week-long event starting on 14 March 2022, the Fair Digital Finance Summit. The Summit will spark the first-ever global conversation around consumer-centred solutions in digital financial services by bringing together diverse voices of consumer advocates and key marketplace actors in digital financial services to accelerate change.  This global summit will showcase the work, perspectives, and ideas from consumer advocates around the world.

The Summit will kick-off with the Consumer Vision for Fair Digital Finance, offering insights from leaders in the consumer movement on what actions are needed to ensure fair digital finance that is inclusive, safe, data protected and private, and sustainable for consumers everywhere. The week of events will take the form of consumer-centred design sprints and incubators, high-level leadership dialogues and multi-stakeholder workshops, with representation from governments, business, academia, and civil society.

How to join the global movement this World Consumer Rights Day?

We invite all marketplace stakeholders to celebrate World Consumers Rights Day and collaborate with us to promote Fair Digital Finance.

What you can do:

  1. Collaborate with Consumers International and our Members for World Consumer Rights Day 2022 to support our Vision and/or take part in our Summit.
  2. Share information about your plans for World Consumer Rights Day 2022 or for any questions, email wcrd@consint.org.
  3. Connect with us on  TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram for all the latest news and announcements on World Consumer Rights Day 2022.
  4. Engage in this global conversation by using our hashtags #FairDigitalFinance and #BetterDigitalWorld on social media.
  5. Read about our previous work on Financial Services.

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