YAOUNDE: Last week, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) governing body postponed yet again a decision to stop accepting money from the tobacco industry for its projects to end child labor in the tobacco growing sector.
A majority of countries and workers in the governing body want to finally break financial ties with the tobacco industry. However, there is still opposition from the employers group and a few countries, mostly in the African region.
The tobacco industry has more to gain from its ties with the ILO than countries themselves. No more postponements. Let the debate on 22 March be the last to finally end this long, unhealthy relationship.
At the ongoing 332nd Session in Geneva, in a statement delivered by Uganda, the African group took the rather surprising position that the ILO should continue taking money from the tobacco industry.
This is in stark contrast to the Uganda Ministry of Health’s compelling presentation at the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) recently in Cape Town which showcased Uganda’s strong national tobacco control law that prohibits partnerships of any kind or endorsement of the tobacco industry.
At the opening of the WCTOH, the South Africa Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, said: “Our continent of Africa is specifically being targeted by the tobacco industry. The conference theme, ‘Uniting the world for a tobacco free generation’ is so appropriate here – we have a growing and youthful population. The youth are special targets. The main purpose of the tobacco industry is to maximize profits at the expense of often vulnerable people. Our fight now is not just against tobacco, it’s a fight for humanity.”
The WCTOH concluded with more than 2000 participants from about 100 countries adopting a declaration calling on the ILO to “end its collaboration with the tobacco industry immediately.”
Africa is making progress in controlling smoking with countries such as Senegal, South Africa and Uganda enacting strong tobacco control laws. Unfortunately, the progress made in Africa appears to not matter when it comes to the positions taken by some delegations attending the ILO governing body meeting
In a report to the governing body of the ongoing 332nd Session in Geneva, the ILO Secretariat proposed that the body no longer rely on tobacco industry funds. It suggested using funds from its regular budget upon the expiry of tobacco industry funded projects this year. In addition, the Secretariat urged partnerships with other United Nations agencies and international development banks, notably the World Bank.
Ending child labor in tobacco growing can be achieved without accepting money from the tobacco industry. The ILO governing body should embrace the proposed integrated strategy which would mobilize international development partners instead of relying mainly on funds from an industry whose products kill 7 million people each year.
Last week, more than 200 public health and sustainable development organizations called on the ILO’s governing body to institute “the strongest possible policies to prohibit cooperation and public-private partnerships with the tobacco industry.”
While the ILO governing body keeps deferring its decision, the tobacco industry and organizations it funds are ramping up publicity that they are committed to the future of tobacco growing communities. The reality is rather different.
The ILO partnerships with the tobacco industry provide limited results, which do not address the root causes of child labor. Tobacco farm workers remain trapped in labor exploitation, poverty and illness despite the claims of the industry, which benefits the most from an extremely harmful but highly profitable business.
In Zambia and Kenya, rigorous studies demonstrated that tobacco growing rarely benefits farmers. In Malawi, independent farmers generate a loss while profits are much lower for contract farmers, when the cost of family labor is accounted for in the calculation of profits.
Last August, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) adopted a resolution condemning private sector and multi-stakeholder child labor schemes, which allow companies to evade responsibility for meaningfully addressing the root cause of child labor in their operations.
The tobacco industry has a history of interfering with tobacco control policymaking by using CSR activities to improve its public image, exert undue influence with international and regional intergovernmental organizations, and gain access to high level officials in targeted countries.
This is why, as a member of the UN Interagency Task Force on NCDs, the ILO should fully align with the UN Economic and Social Council Resolution E/RES/2017/8 , Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) – a global treaty with 181 Parties and the UN model policy for agencies of the UN system to ensure tobacco control efforts are protected from undue influence by any form of vested interest.
To promote decent work, guard against interference with labor standards, policies and programs, the ILO must keep the tobacco industry at arm’s length. When the long-standing cooperation agreements between the ILO, the tobacco industry and organizations it funds expire this year, the ILO can finally align itself with the international framework, developed to counter undue influence from the tobacco industry.
BY TIH NTIABANG
Tih Ntiabang is regional coordinator – AFRO, Framework Convention Alliance, Cameroon