President Trump has taken many by surprise with his recent threats to impose global tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Presumably seeking to deliver policy goods to his political base, the remarks appear aimed to support the principally white male workers in the steel and aluminum industries.
But if these tariffs are imposed, negative consequences will hit a whole host of other workers, and women workers in particular. Trade, too, is a gendered policy area.
Trade issues formed a central pillar of Trump’s campaign promises, which emphasized re-negotiating multilateral and bilateral trade agreements and increasing tariffs on imported goods from specific countries (China, Mexico) as well as across the board. These promises appealed to voters who saw globalization generally and free trade deals in particular as detrimental to American jobs and workers.
Now Trump appears to be making good on this promise, even if we have few details. His statements followed the Department of Commerce’s release of reports under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. This section authorizes the Department of Commerce to investigate the impact of imports–in this case of steel and aluminum–on U.S. national security. In these reports, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross recommended that the President consider a number of remedies to address the national security problem posed by steel and aluminum imports, including global tariffs on both. The administration has not yet officially adopted any specific remedy or released any specific proposal. Still, President Trump’s statements floating the idea of a global tariff of 25% on steel imports and 10% on aluminum imports alarmed many at home and abroad.
While Trump appears to be catering to one group of workers and their bosses, other groups will likely directly suffer.
Research demonstrates that tariffs tend to place a heavier burden on certain categories of consumers–namely single parents–and many goods that women overwhelmingly purchase (such as women’s clothing) have historically faced higher tariffs than goods typically consumed by men. Tariffs on steel and aluminium will hit broad US manufacturing sectors that depend on these inputs — from beer breweries to the aerospace industry. It will also affect household consumers as they absorb the increased costs of a soup can, the pot the soup might be cooked in, and aluminium foil.
Perhaps more detrimental, there is the risk that the imposition of such high global tariffs could lead to trade retaliation (which the EU –among others– has already threatened against American bourbon and bluejeans) or a full-blown trade war.
In evaluating the impact of such a scenario on the U.S. economy, one study found that while sectors that produce capital goods are likely to be the most intensely affected, the largest absolute number of job losses would occur in non-trade service sectors.
These sectors include wholesale and retail distribution and sales, restaurants, healthcare, and temporary employment agencies, sectors that tend to disproportionately employ women, and are also among the primary employers for women of color. According to the most recent American Community Survey (2016), while 16% of white men worked in service or sales, 24% of white women, 31% of African American women and 27% of Latinas (16 and over) worked in these occupations.
Tariffs and trade wars may be good for a handful of principally white male workers and CEOs. But the ripple effects will be negative for the rest of us, and harshest for women of color and those with lower economic means.
The Republican party has traditionally sought to reduce regulation on business, and the Trump administration has made such reductions a priority. De-regulation features prominently in its recent budget plan (“America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again”: as a way to save money and restore America’s greatness. By burdening businesses, the document explains, regulations “function much like taxes that unnecessarily inhibit growth and employment” (p. 9).
Thus, the administration has outlined three actions: a federal-level, 60-day “regulatory freeze” on the creation of new rules; the creation of bodies within each federal agency to carry out the new regulatory priorities; and a new requirement that all federal agencies cut two existing regulations for each new one issued.
This Executive Order “konmari” or housecleaning includes a regulatory cost cap of $0 for 2017—any new regulation must be, effectively, costless.
To many, this approach sounds fantastic. Removing regulations on businesses, it is hoped, will relieve employers of the costs of regulatory compliance and allow them to create more jobs, thus improving the economy. But here’s the catch: many regulations exist to protect people – consumers, employees, and average citizens.
Although it is difficult at this point to predict which regulations are likely to be culled, it seems reasonable that if the “one regulation forward, two regulations back” approach holds, many of the regulations that are discarded are likely to be from OSHA.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), part of the United States Department of Labor, is responsible for enacting many of the regulations related to work. Created by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA is charged with assuring “safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards.”
OSHA is a likely target for “regulation fishing” for three reasons. First, OSHA exists almost solely to set and enforce standards and regulations. The sheer number of regulations involved in its operation makes the agency a target. Second, OSHA rules constrain businesses, and the cost of business would likely be lower without many OSHA rules. Third, OSHA is not a hugely prominent body in the public consciousness (unlike, for instance, the EPA), and many of OSHA’s individual regulations are so mundane or limited in scope that a widespread public backlash is unlikely to ensue if its rules are cut.
If OSHA rules are discarded, this will hurt workers of all genders, but in starkly different ways. Data, for instance, suggest men and women suffer differentially in workplace accidents.
According to OSHA’s workplace fatality data, there were 1,268 workplace fatalities in fiscal year 2015. Trucks, ladders, collisions, roofs, vehicles, forklifts, and trees were especially deadly, collectively accounting about half of these deaths (624). Only 7% (36) of these are identifiable as women. Changing regulations with regard to industries like construction could, thus, have a very severe effect on men, who are far more likely than women to die on the job.
Yet, gratefully, not all workplace injuries are fatalities. In the same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 902,160 non-fatal occupational injuries. Though men accounted for just about 62% of these non-fatal injuries in private industry, certain categories of injury appear distinctly gendered. Men, for example, represent far more of the nonfatal workplace injuries associated with dangerous jobs: 91% of nonfatal workplace injuries that result in amputations, 93% of injuries involving trucks, 92% of injuries involving fires or explosions, and 80% of injuries involving getting caught in equipment affected men.
On the other hand, we can identify two categories of workplace injury that distinctly affect women: those related to repetitive work or office work and those involving being injured by another person while on the job.
First, women account for 60% of injuries caused by “repetitive motion, involving microtasks”, 66% of incidents of carpal tunnel syndrome, and 62% of reported tendonitis. Regulations regarding office work and other repetitive motion are distinctly un-sexy, un-prominent rules that are easily presented as unnecessarily burdensome to companies, but dispensing with them would harm female employees disproportionately.
Second, women are far, far more likely than men to be hurt by other people while on the job. In 2015, women accounted for 68% of “intentional injury by another person” and 70% of injuries caused by “injury by person unintentional or intent unknown”, as well as 62% of those caused by “violence and other injuries by persons or animal” while on the job (“animal and insect related incidents” are a separate, fairly gender-balanced category of injury). Violence against women at work is a known issue, but one that still receives less attention that it deserves. In addition to explicit violence, women are likely to be hurt by others because of the jobs they have. Specifically, women account for 81% of injuries in health care and social assistance and 60% in education services.
Nursing assistants are injured more often than workers in any other occupation, according to the BLS, and nursing assistants are primarily women.
Framing regulations as easily dispensed impediments to business—and repeating that rhetoric loudly and often—makes it easy for the public to believe all regulations are drains on the economy. Yet many were created to protect people. Just as we don’t know precisely how well existing regulations work to protect those workers, we cannot know how many additional workplace fatalities or injuries would occur in the absence of current regulations that currently exist. We can only say that their removal would not improve workers’ conditions. Moreover, removing or loosening many of these regulations could easily represent a very gendered policy: men are more likely to be killed at work and more likely to be injured while doing dangerous work, but women suffer much more from routine-use injuries, workplace violence, and other interactions with people. Since these issues are less obviously dangerous, they may be more susceptible to cuts. The de-regulation of workplace safety is very much a women’s rights issue.
The Trump administration has made opposition to trade and offshoring a hallmark of its economic and social policies. Its “America First” strategy, which President Trump introduced in his inaugural address, paints globalization in especially stark and violent terms: “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world… We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” The focus on the destruction of jobs has been central to Trump’s campaign and his early presidency, and appears to be a very targeted message: we are going to save the jobs of white, working class men.
Recent research shows that men are especially aggrieved by offshoring, and my own research shows that white men in particular attach a strong political salience to offshoring regardless of their own economic conditions, but is offshoring really just an issue for men?
When President Trump talks about other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs, he is referring to the phenomenon of offshoring. Offshoring, sometimes called ‘outsourcing’, refers to the economic phenomenon of jobs being moved overseas. Yet of course this does not literally refer to jobs actually being shipped abroad, as the rhetoric suggests, but instead a natural response to the pressures of global trade. Countries focus their economic energies on producing products they can make relatively cheaply, and import the rest. As a result, the US tends to import many products that use a lot of labor to produce, since labor is less expensive abroad. As we import those products instead of making them here, there is a decrease in jobs here and an increase in jobs abroad.
Popular understanding of offshoring tends to focus on its effects in manufacturing. Offshoring primarily hurts those whose work involves routine and repetitive tasks. [i] While many occupations fit this description – support roles that can be conducted over the phone or internet rather than in person, especially — the conversation about offshoring most often focuses on jobs in manufacturing. These workers suffer in the form of job losses and lowered wages.
It is difficult to say exactly how many jobs in manufacturing have been lost to offshoring, largely because the same characteristics that make a job vulnerable to offshoring also make it easy to replace with robots.
Yet data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics does show us that there are fewer manufacturing jobs in the US now than there were in 2007, although the big drop in manufacturing jobs happened in 2010, and the number has been steadily growing since (Figure 1 below).
Another thing the data make clear is that manufacturing is a male-dominated field (Figure 2, below). On average, almost three-quarters of manufacturing jobs in the US are held by men. Logically, this would suggest that any job losses that do occur primarily hurt men, and research suggests that white men in particular tend to be affected by offshoring. Researchers have found that white men in areas most exposed to the labor market disruptions caused by trade are especially likely to die by suicide and my own recent research with Andrew Kerner (U. of Michigan) and Brian Richter (U. of Texas) shows that white men feel especially and uniquely aggrieved by offshoring, even when we account for their own economic situation.
Yet what is interesting about the plots of the BLS data is that when manufacturing jobs decreased, the proportion of those jobs held by men actually slightly increased. While this could absolutely be statistical noise, it does suggest that, while more men were hurt by job losses in manufacturing, women may be the long-term casualties. As Figure 2 shows, this small increase in the proportion of manufacturing jobs held by men looks somewhat differently when we look at total jobs: while more men lost jobs when manufacturing employment dipped, they have also accounted for a larger share of the new job creation.
The increase in women working in manufacturing is almost imperceptible on this plot, when viewed on the same scale as men, while employment among men is steadily increasing.
While these plots do not control for other possible explanatory factors and cannot explain why this is happening, they do suggest that job losses in manufacturing – whether due to offshoring or to automation, another likely culprit for the loss of highly routinized jobs – may have disproportionately hurt women. As new jobs have been created in manufacturing, the field may be becoming more male-dominated.
It is also possible – maybe even probable – that the male-domination of manufacturing is why it is such a great talking point for Trump. While it is difficult to disentangle whether his strong support among white working-class men is a cause or an effect of his messaging, that support base is strong and Trump shows signs of continuing to speak to them and address their concerns. While he has made a great spectacle of visiting and “saving” jobs at a Carrier plant in Indiana, or “stopping” automobile factories from investing in Mexico, there have been recent closures and job losses that have gone entirely unmentioned. Retail establishments such as Macy’s, Wet Seal, and Sears have all announced massive closures in recent months, with Macy’s alone shedding 10,000 jobs. Despite this accounting for more job losses than either Carrier or the automobile companies, there has been no mention of “saving” these jobs. And that may well be because the service sector is female-dominated, and the administration does not think women’s work is worth saving.
[i] Owen, Erica. Exposure to Offshoring and the Politics of Trade Liberalization: Debate and votes on Free Trade Agreements in the U.S. House of Representatives, 2001-2006. International Studies Quarterly. Forthcoming.
Owen, Erica & Johnston, Noel P. Occupation and the Political Economy of Trade: Job Routineness, Offshorability and Protectionist Sentiment. International Organization. Forthcoming.