ILO chief wants to cut ties with big tobacco. Will the governing body heed the call?

The International Labour Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

MANILA — The International Labour Organization is again under intense pressure from a growing number of stakeholders to put an end to its relationship with big tobacco. But after ILO postponed a long-awaited vote on divestment Wednesday, many wonder whether the governing body will be able to reach an agreement by the end of its ongoing 332nd session in Geneva on March 22.

This week, more than 200 organizations globally called on ILO’s governing body to put in place policies prohibiting further collaboration with the tobacco industry. This, they argue, is in line with the ILO Secretariat’s recent recommendations that the body no longer rely on tobacco industry donors for its projects fighting child labor and promoting decent work.

In its report to the governing body for its ongoing 332nd session in Geneva, the Secretariat suggested the aid agency use funds from its regular budget for its projects in Brazil, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia, upon the expiry this year of industry-funded projects implemented by ILO. The organization will pursue funding from “a broad coalition of development partners” to fill potential funding gaps, including other United Nations agencies and multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank.

“Contacts so far undertaken make it reasonable to expect that the integrated strategy will attract support given the international community’s commitment to international development goals, to decent work for all and with respect to tobacco control,” according to the document.

The agency currently has active projects with tobacco companies and those funded by the industry amounting to more than $15 million. But these projects, part of ILO’s public-private partnership program, are set to conclude this year.

The recently concluded 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health has also called on ILO to end its collaboration with the industry “immediately” in the conference declarations.

Tobacco consumption and exposure has widely acknowledged social, environmental, economic, and health implications. The latest Tobacco Atlas reveals how it has caused the death of more than 7 million people in 2016, and cost the global economy $2 trillion in purchasing power parity each year through health care costs and lost productivity, which the report says is equivalent to almost 2 percent of the world’s total economic output. Dr. Neil Schluger, Vital Strategies’ senior adviser for science and co-editor and author of The Atlas, noted the numbers are “a conservative estimate.”

The decision to end its relationship with the industry however has been filled with debate. Some of the members of ILO’s governing body remain adamant about keeping the relationship, arguing the sector helps create jobs for 60 million people a year.

Multiple studies have shown that the tobacco industry has perpetuated cycles of poverty among the very people their “charitable donations” are trying to help by administering unfair contracts and putting control over pricing in tobacco leaf production and in the marketing chain. Without enough income, tobacco farmers and their families remain illiterate and unable to engage in opportunities to help prop their incomes. In August, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations also revealed how tobacco companies have suppressed tobacco workers from exercising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

“Workers, tenants, and farmers face challenges in exercising their freedom of association rights, and in joining or creating organizations through which they could bargain collectively with their employers, landowners or contractors. This may be caused by lack of awareness, lack of capacity or even legal restrictions. The research in Malawi showed that many workers in tobacco production are unfamiliar with the purpose and nature of trade unions, suggesting that a lack of information may prevent them from fully exercising these rights,” according to the ILO report.

It adds that while some countries have introduced systems in which farmers can enter into legal agreements with leaf-buying companies allowing the latter to provide agricultural inputs on credit and cash loans, such schemes do “not necessarily result in better outcomes for farmers.”

In Malawi, some farmers end up being in debt after the end of season tobacco sale. In Indonesia, they fail to make profit.

“Overall, the ILO governing body is leaning toward ending its relationship with the tobacco industry, but the decision still faces a few roadblocks,” Mischa Terzyk, policy and advocacy officer with the Framework Convention Alliance, told Devex.

While he says a majority of the countries and workers in the body are leaning toward the proposal to end ILO’s ties with the tobacco industry, there are still some opposition from a few tobacco-exporting countries, mostly in the African region.

“The employers, however, are the last solid bastion of opposition. In the past, we have seen behind-the-scenes compromises between workers and employers; that is yet to be seen here, but it is a concern for tomorrow's vote,” he said.

His concern, which he shared with Devex ahead of the scheduled vote, turned out to be true. The body again reached a stalemate, after the employers group and the African bloc again expressed their disapproval of breaking ties with the industry.

ILO under pressure to limit relationship with big tobacco

This week, the governing body of the International Labour Organization will consider a number of measures concerning the organization, including whether or how to continue with its engagement with tobacco companies amid criticisms of continuously receiving funding from the industry.

This is a repeat episode of the events that took place in November last year, when, during the body’s 331st session, the United States and the African bloc, which includes the governments of Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Lesotho, supported the employers’ proposal for ILO to find a way to align its policies without ending its relationship with tobacco companies. Tobacco growing countries such as Malawi also provided support for ILO’s continued partnership with the industry, sources said. Unable to reach an agreement, the ILO governing body postponed a decision on the issue. Given the current debate, however, that decision has again been delayed and postponed to next week, toward the end of the ongoing session.

The U.N. model policy drafted by the U.N. Interagency Task Force on Noncommunicable Diseases calls on all in the U.N. system to “work as one” by adopting a consistent approach in preventing tobacco industry interference.

The ILO governing body’s decision, should it align with the Secretariat’s report, “could shutter one of the tobacco industry’s last-remaining avenues of interference in the United Nations, making it harder for it to weaken, delay, and block life-saving public health and labor policies,” said John Stewart, deputy campaigns director for Corporate Accountability.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.