ILO postpones decision on tobacco industry cooperation

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

MANILA — After nearly two weeks of dialogue, the International Labor Organization's (ILO) governing body has deferred its decision on whether to end the agency's embattled relationship with tobacco industry players.

The governing body was supposed to come out with a decision last week about whether to sever financial ties with tobacco companies and organizations funded by the industry, but a discussions among its tripartite governing bodies — composed of governments, workers’ groups and employers — remained in deadlock.

The tobacco industry currently funds two ILO programs, amounting to roughly $15 million.

The governing body has now called on the ILO director-general to present an “integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector” during the agency’s 332nd session in March 2018. This is the second time it has postponed the decision this year.

A number of the ILO’s government bodies, such as Canada, the European Union, and Uruguay, have called for alternative sources of funding for ILO’s programs aimed at ending child labor. Canada, in particular, has expressed expectations that the ILO director general come prepared with a commitment to end its financial arrangements with the tobacco industry once the session concludes in 2018, according to a document obtained by Devex.

Countries such as the United States and a group of African countries have expressed support for the employers’ proposal, which calls for the ILO remain in its relationship with the tobacco sector, which it says creates 60 million jobs a year. Employers argue the sector should not be discriminated against, and that ILO can find a way to align its policies without departing from its relationship with the industry.

Japan Tobacco International commended the governing body for postponing the decision, arguing that the issues being put forward by the FCTC Secretariat and anti-tobacco activists are “oversimplified” and “misdirected pressure on the social mandate of the ILO.” In a news release, JTI Global Leaf Social Programs Director Elaine McKay said the governing body should understand and acknowledge that the future of tobacco growing communities is at stake before arriving on a decision.

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.

The industry-funded Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, meanwhile, which also has programs with ILO, said in a news release that it hopes the ILO Secretariat will come up with an “integrated strategy” addressing decent work challenges in the tobacco sector that will have “significant impact on the realisation of the legal and human rights of the children and families of more than 40 million tobacco farmers in over 120 countries worldwide.” The statement adds that the foundation will “continue to advocate for strong policies in both government and private sector, which evolve into laws and responsible business practices that keep children out of labour and promote decent work.”

Nongovernmental organizations and groups that have been calling for the ILO to cut its ties with the industry, however, are disappointed.

“It is time for the ILO to let it go,” said Mary Assunta, senior policy advisor for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). ILO’s programs, funded by the industry, are “not real solutions and serve to divert public attention from a more meaningful and long-term ways to address them,” according to SEATCA.

Vital Strategies has also expressed “dismay” over the deferment of the decision.

“Tobacco will kill as many as one billion people this century — taking a greater claim on human health than any other single risk factor for disease,’ said its President and CEO José Luis Castro. “The tobacco industry consistently portrays itself as being active in corporate social responsibility, but continues to profit from child labor and dangerous, unfair working conditions, primarily in low- and middle-income countries.”

Close to 200 NGOs came out with a letter pressuring the ILO to cut its ties with the industry, particularly its monetary relationship with tobacco companies and entities funded by the industry. They argued the ILO is risking reputational damage by continuing to engage with tobacco firms, and undermining its mandate of promoting decent work.

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About the author

  • 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.