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The ILO must divorce the tobacco industry

9 March 2017:

On 16 March 2017 the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) will decide on its relationship with the tobacco industry (TI). For many years the ILO has had a close working relationship with the global TI through its public-private partnership programme. Now the ILO’s collaboration with the tobacco industry is on the agenda of its 328th Session of the Governing Body to determine future policy.

The ILO is a member of the UN Interagency Task Force (UNIATF) on Prevention and Control of NCDs which adopted a draft model policy last year for preventing tobacco industry interference among UN agencies. This policy states: “UNIATF should reject partnerships, joint programs, non-binding or non-enforceable agreements and any other voluntary relationships with the tobacco industry.”

The time has come for the ILO to cut its ties with the tobacco industry. But, will it? ILO’s referencedocument for its Governing Body is skewed with songs of praise for the work with the tobacco industry. This is not surprising because transnational tobacco companies have been financially supporting some of the work of the ILO particularly in addressing child labour in tobacco growing.

The ILO currently has US$15 million from Japan Tobacco International and Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (a TI front group) for programs including initiatives on child labour. While the ILO estimates there are about 60 million people involved in tobacco growing and leaf processing worldwide, however it offers no data on the number of children working in this industry. In fact the ILO says shifts in tobacco production to the developing world may have resulted in increased child labour.

It appears the ILO has completely missed the point on how the tobacco industry actually benefits from child labour:

  • Tobacco industry pays very low prices to purchase tobacco leaves because the cost of labour excludes the cost of labour from probably millions of children who work on tobacco farms.
  • Unlike all other industries which have zero-tolerance for child labour, the TI continues to profit from child labour without actually ending it. Other industries simply don’t purchase their raw materials tainted by child labour.
  • Not ending child labour enables the TI to continue conducting CSR activities and gain access to high profile bodies like the ILO and high level government officials at the country level.

Clearly the tobacco industry needs ILO more than ILO needs the industry. The ILO logo appears on the ECLT website. This group has been exposed as a TI front group. Philip Morris International removed the ILO logo from its website only after a complaint was filed by OxyRomandie to the Director General of the ILO.

Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, the Head of the FCTC Convention Secretariat said, “My own experience in a number of countries has shown that the industry’s “solutions” cannot be trusted, and this is equally true with tobacco farming where children are used unscrupulously for cultivating and harvesting this deadly product.”

What will the ILO Governing Body decide on 15 March? Will their decision be coloured by the paltry US$15million? The Governing Body must put itself above tainted funds and choose the policy to cut ties with the tobacco industry:

“39(b) to request the Director-General to discontinue PPP arrangements with tobacco companies and tobacco -related institutions after the current PPPs with the ECLT and the JTI have ended, to renounce receiving funding in the future from such companies and institutions, and continue to explore alternative sources of funding for child labour elimination activities in tobacco growing communities in full conformity with the purpose and objectives of the FCTC and the UNIATF model policy for agencies of the UN system on preventing tobacco industry interference.”

The ILO ought to know the many years of collaboration with the industry has not eliminated child labour. Under the WHO FCTC, the 180 Parties are obligated to find alternate livelihoods for tobacco farming. The ILO should align its policies towards this goal and practice good governance by adopting a policy that reject partnerships with the tobacco industry.