Ahead of ILO’s meeting, activists renew push to sever ties with tobacco companies

The UN health agency warned that tobacco’s killer toxins also wreak havoc on the environment. [Photo: ITV.com]
The UN health agency warned that tobacco’s killer toxins also wreak havoc on the environment. [Photo: ITV.com]

Ahead of the technical meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Kampala, Uganda, tobacco control advocates have renewed their push for the United Nation’s agency to sever all ties with tobacco companies.

The ILO meeting holds July 3 – 5 to exchange views on the development and implementation of an integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector.

The meeting is expected to propose strategies to promote an enabling policy environment for decent work in tobacco-growing countries; strengthen social dialogue; and assist tobacco-growing communities to address issues such as child labour as well as transition to alternative livelihoods.

“The importance of this Kampala meeting cannot be stressed enough as its recommendations will seriously impact the ultimate decision of the ILO to permanently cut ties with the tobacco industry,” Deowan Mohee, Executive Secretary of the African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA), said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The latter, known for consistently defending its own interests and not decent work and health conditions of tobacco farmers, will no doubt attempt by all means to influence in its favour the decisions of the Kampala meeting.”

The ILO is the only known UN agency that has long been receiving funds from the tobacco industry for some of its projects, the latest being a public-private partnership with Japan Tobacco International and the tobacco-funded non-profit Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation. These funds aimed at ending child labour and promoting workers’ rights in tobacco-growing communities in Brazil, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

While the funding from ECLT, a group funded by the tobacco industry, ended in June 2018; the partnership with Japan Tobacco International came to an end six months later.

But tobacco control advocates and groups had continually frowned at the ILO’s closeness to the tobacco industry. In 2017, nearly 200 public health organisations and labour rights groups mounted pressure on the ILO to expel tobacco companies from its membership.

Calls to completely sever ties with the tobacco industry heightened ahead of the 332nd session of the ILO Governing Body in Geneva.

At the 331st session of the ILO Governing Board in 2017, the body erroneously issued a statement that it would stop taking funds from the tobacco industry and end their public-private partnerships.

A few hours later, the agency “corrected” its statement saying the “ILO has not at this stage made a decision to end cooperation with the tobacco industry.”

Francis Thompson, Executive Director of the Framework Convention Alliance, said tobacco companies are powerful multinationals who use partnerships with reputable organisations such as the ILO to promote themselves as part of the solution to a problem they caused knowingly.

“Corporate social responsibility partnerships are vehicles through which the tobacco industry gains credibility and co-opts governments as lobbyists for its interests,” Mr Thompson told ATCA ahead of the ILO’s technical meeting.

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“To counter the negative press it receives, the industry invests relatively small amounts in corporate social responsibility activities. The returns in terms of public relations and goodwill are extensive.

“The end result is that shareholders and the public remain none the wiser about the true human cost of the activities of tobacco companies, while the tobacco industry continues to influence international law-making and boost its public image.”

Strategy against Big Tobacco

Tobacco use kills more than eight million people each year, according to the World Health Organisation. More than seven million of those deaths result from direct use of tobacco while around 1.2 million are due to non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

Even though it’s a technical meeting, the ILO gathering in Kampala is expected to have a critical impact on the Governing Board’s decision on the organisation’s relationship with the tobacco industry.

Mr Thompson said the source of the problems in the tobacco sector is the tobacco industry itself.

“To address this root cause, the ILO needs to develop a comprehensive strategy, free from the constraints of corporate social responsibility partnerships.

“The problems in the tobacco sector include poor working and bargaining conditions that force farmers into financial hardships that ultimately turns them to child labour.”

Although global estimates are not available, ILO research across countries show that child labour is widespread in the tobacco sector. Children of both sexes are involved in stringing, reaping, weeding, ridging, grading, watering nurseries, transplanting, applying fertilisers, and harvesting. Weeding accounts for more than half of the labour required and is done predominantly by women and children.

Children are also engaged in such hazardous work as the application of pesticides, carrying heavy loads, and night work.

Tobacco control advocates say the ILO’s technical meeting presents it an opportunity to seek strategies international organisations and governments can collaborate to end poverty without engaging with the tobacco industry.

“It is our wish that the meeting comes up with appropriate strategies the ILO can undertake to operate without tobacco industry funding,” said Mr Mohee.

“In that way, participants of the meeting would have created the legacy of being part of the process that led to the ILO cutting ties permanently with the tobacco industry.”

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