The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) has been a hot topic for some time now, and for good reason. The agreement is seen as a key instrument for the expansion and development of Africa’s economy. It will reduce tariffs and non-tariff barriers, facilitate the movement of people and goods, and create a continental customs union.

While the AfCFTA offers significant opportunities for women entrepreneurs, it also poses challenges for women traders, mainly in the informal economy.

Speaking at the ITUC Summer School in Lomé, Gladys Branche, Chair of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress Women’s Committee, said the AfCFTA agreement could help to address the unique challenges for particularly women in cross-border informal trade and small-scale businesses.

The annual ITUC Africa Trade Union Leadership School, known as the New Year School, provides a platform for trade unionists to discuss and reflect on contemporary social, economic and political matters affecting Africa.

The 13th New Year School, held in 2023, was themed “AfCFTA and Migration in Africa: Issues and Challenges for Workers”. More than 70 trade unionists from 26 countries met to reflect on the new development narratives on the continent and the need for greater involvement of the labour movement in the development of alternative proposals that would bring about positive changes for workers and the people of Africa since the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a panel discussion entitled “Trade and Labour Mobility: Advancing workers’ rights and international labour standards in the AfCFTA”, Branche noted that the documentation and structures to implement the AfCFTA are already in place. However, although 52 countries have signed the agreement, only four have ratified it. That raises the issue of why countries have not ratified the agreement and the challenges facing the AfCFTA.

Why are we still lagging behind? Why are countries not signing up?

~ Gladys Branche, Chair of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress Women’s Committee

Implementation of the AfCFTA

The AfCFTA is not a self-executing agreement. This means that AfCFTA States Parties will take a number of actions for the agreement to take effect, as stipulated in Article 4. The States Parties to the AfCFTA are all the Member States of the African Union that have ratified or acceded to the AfCFTA Agreement and for which the Agreement is in force. Article 4 of the AfCFTA provides that States Parties shall:

  • Progressively eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade in goods
  • Progressively liberalise trade in services
  • Cooperate on investment, intellectual property rights and competition policy
  • Cooperate in all trade-related areas
  • Cooperate on customs matters and the implementation of trade facilitation measures
  • Establish a mechanism for the settlement of disputes concerning their rights and obligations
  • Establish and maintain an institutional framework for the implementation and administration of the AfCFTA

The AfCFTA agreement has nine Protocols. These set out the rules, terms and procedures for each specific area of the Agreement. The Protocol on Trade in Goods entered into force on 30 May 2020, although negotiations are ongoing on two critical elements, the Schedules of Duties and Rules of Origin. These annexes have a direct bearing on labour and the Decent Work Agenda, and negotiating them provides a further opportunity for trade unions to influence the Agreement. The adoption of the Protocol on Women and the Youth as part of the collection contributes to the existing measures for addressing the unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and traders. The Protocol recognises the rights and contributions of women traders. The informal nature of economic activities is also unique and a challenge to regulation.  By legitimising and protecting women’s trading practices, the The Protocol on Women and Youth can provide a pillar for the regulation of informal trade.

“The states must commit to changing the protocols to protect workers’ rights, and the trade union movement must demand comprehensive provisions on labour that should become part of the protocols. This must happen through negotiations and social dialogue.”

~ Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, General Secretary of ITUC Africa.

The effects of trade agreements on women in the informal economy

Women in cross-border trade are disproportionately affected by trade agreements. Some of the challenges they face include limited access to resources such as finance, networks and information, a lack of infrastructure, and gender-based violence and discrimination. For women who trade primarily in the informal economy, the effects are even more pronounced. They face further vulnerability and violence due to a lack of information about border crossings and facilities.

“When discussing the AfCFTA and labour mobility we must always consider the plight of migrant women workers who are employed under precarious conditions. They face gender-based violence and harassment which is caused by unequal power relations. The women are vulnerable as they seek ways to get out of poverty through employment in neighbouring countries or abroad. We need law reforms, labour migration policies, and fair recruitment processes that protect migrant women workers.”

~ Rose Omamo, Vice president of IndustriALL

Addressing these challenges is critical to ensuring that women can fully benefit from the AfCFTA. Some measures include improving access to finance, investing in infrastructure, providing information and training, and addressing the systemic gender-based discrimination and violence that women traders face on a daily basis.

Branche argued that in order to address the challenges faced by women traders, the AfCFTA agreement must include labour provisions, as called for in the Trade Union Tunis Declaration of 2022.

“ITUC-Africa and its affiliates (must) go back and review the declaration that we made in Tunis. That declaration actually speaks to issues that address the Decent Work Agenda, Labour Inspectorate, communication, and capacity building so that women (can) understand and know their rights.”

~ Gladys Branche, Chair of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress Women’s Committee

A holistic approach and real commitment are needed to address these issues. This would encourage the much-needed social dialogue. Blanche also stressed the importance of effective monitoring of implementation to ensure women’s rights are protected in the AfCFTA.

The AfCFTA has enormous potential for the economic growth and development of Africa. However, the rights and protections of women traders must be taken seriously and mainstreamed into the agreement in order for them to benefit. Women must be given the information and facilities they need to trade effectively and be protected from harassment and abuse. The trade union movement has a role to play in pushing for the right conditions to be created for women traders to flourish under the AfCFTA. It is only by working together that we can ensure that the full potential of the AfCFTA is realised.

Essential Resource: National Centres Briefing on the AfCFTA agreement | ITUC-Africa New Year School



Also read:

AfCFTA Protocol on Investment: Three steps for ensuring gender equality and women’s economic empowerment

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