ILO under pressure to limit relationship with big tobacco

A view of the International Labour Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Dominique Nicolas / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

MANILA — The governing body of the International Labour Organization will this week consider whether or how to continue with its engagement with tobacco companies amid criticisms of continuously receiving funding from the industry.

Proponents of the U.N. Framework Convention for Tobacco Control have been calling on the U.N. agency to cut its ties with the tobacco industry, specifically its monetary relationship that dates back to over a decade.

The agency has been receiving funding from the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, a nonprofit funded by tobacco companies, since 2002, and has a standing agreement with the foundation that runs until June 2018. In 2011, the ILO also entered into a public-private partnership with the Japan Tobacco International for a program worth more than $10 million aimed at reducing child labor and promoting workers’ rights, occupational safety, and health in Brazil, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia. The latter partnership is set to conclude in December 2018.

These projects, amounting to more than $15 million in total, fall under ILO’s public-private partnership program and are aimed at reducing child labor, which is part of ILO’s core mandate. But nongovernmental organizations have condemned them as exploitative, with “nominal impact on child labor.”

“The projects focus on the cycle of poverty of tobacco farmers and neglect to address tobacco industry practices such as the administration of unfair contracts, collusion over leaf prices, and inflation of the costs for farm inputs that perpetuate poverty in the first place,” argued 180 NGOs in a letter dated October 16 to government members of ILO’s governing body and seen by Devex.

“Internal documents of the tobacco industry have revealed that these projects are actually intended to provide cover for egregious tobacco industry abuse by being carried out jointly with a respectable organization like the ILO,” they added.

If ILO continues its relationship with the tobacco industry, the NGOs fear the U.N. agency could suffer reputational damage and undermine the work it does in promoting decent work for all as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

ILO under the UN umbrella

The ILO is not a party to the FCTC, but there are certain expectations attached to the agency as an entity operating under the U.N. umbrella. Engaging with tobacco companies is “contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values,” according to a 2016 U.N. “model policy” drafted for entities operating under the U.N. system

ILO is also a member of the U.N. interagency task force on tobacco control, an ad hoc agency initially established by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to coordinate U.N. agencies’ efforts on tobacco control, which has since expanded to include the control and prevention of noncommunicable diseases.

How other UN agencies established policies

Some U.N. agencies, such as the WHO, U.N. Development Programme, and UNESCO, have internal policies in place that the task force has touted as best practices. UNDP has a policy that identifies business practices they deem unacceptable when engaging with the private sector. UNESCO has internal guidelines that basically remove as a funding source any private entity involved in the production or distribution of tobacco products. WHO has very strict guidance when meeting with tobacco industry players.

The FCTC “is a U.N. treaty, and there are obligations,” Mary Assunta, senior policy advisor for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, told Devex. “And under the obligations, articles have been laid out as to what countries need to do. And one of the things that countries need to do is to ban corporate social responsibility activities that are funded by tobacco companies.”

Article 13 under the convention provides the impetus for parties to the convention to ban all forms of tobacco promotion, advertising, and sponsorship. Tobacco company CSR, according to Assunta, is a form of sponsorship and should be banned. She said that the ILO’s programs with tobacco companies undermine the treaty countries signed into.

Uganda offers one example: The government has an existing law that prohibits government officials from forming partnerships with tobacco industries. But ILO’s program with nonprofit ECLT includes Uganda as a focus country.

“If this program invites a government official to go endorse or attend a ceremony for that program, the Ugandan government will be put into a difficult position of saying no to the ILO on one hand, and implementing its national legislation on the other hand,” Assunta said. “Why would ILO want to create such a precarious and difficult position for the Ugandan government?”

The nonbinding model policy

The U.N. model policy, drafted by U.N. interagency task force, includes measures such as: rejecting partnerships, joint programs, non-binding or non-enforceable agreements and other voluntary arrangements with the tobacco industry; not granting the industry permission to use U.N. entity’s name, logo, and emblem; and avoiding conflicts of interest by not accepting payments, gifts, services, hospitality, monetary, in-kind, and research funding offered by the tobacco industry.

The policy is meant to get the U.N. “house in order,” according to a source familiar with the task force who requested to remain anonymous in order not to jeopardize continuing efforts toward compliance.

The model policy is not a binding instrument, and thus does not compel U.N. entities that are members of the task force to implement them.

“Currently, the [task force] does not have instruments to make sure that [none of the members] receive anything from the tobacco industry or related NGO or other entities,” the source said. “Some of them proudly say that ‘now we are acting in accordance with the policy,’ and we are proud of that. But some of them, for example ILO, but also the World Trade Organization, has problems with that. WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] has problems with that.”

A recent task force report shows that the secretariats of both WTO and WIPO have abstained decisions on implementing the model policy until the matter has been reviewed by their respective governing bodies. The source was uncertain of a timeframe for discussing the policy.

The task force will attend the ILO’s discussion this week as the governing body contemplates the future of ILO’s relationship with the tobacco industry. The 331st session in Geneva started October 26 and runs until November 9, with a decision on tobacco expected by November 1.

The first policy document on the tobacco issue, released in February 2017 for the ILO governing body’s 329th session, contained an option for the director-general to cease its PPP arrangements with tobacco companies and other related institutions after the conclusion of current projects. In March, the governing body decided to defer decision on the topic later in the year.  

But the ILO’s latest policy document, detailing the organization’s history with the tobacco industry, as well as the potential legal implications for ILO toward the adoption or not of the task force’s model policy, takes a different approach. It offers the governing body only one policy option on tobacco: for the director-general of ILO to further develop the organization’s strategy of engagement, taking into account members views.

That may include strengthening ILO safeguards to prevent risk of tobacco industry influence; improving dialogue with members of the task force with regards to eliminating child labor and decent work; and strengthening resource mobilization efforts from both state and nonstate donors. If the recommended approaches are agreeable to the governing body, then the ILO secretariat will prepare a progress report in 2019, the policy document says.

“[The policy document] has provided no option, which suggests they will discuss it until 2019,” said the source.

“It appears the ILO still wants to continue receiving money from the tobacco industry, because if you read the current background document, it makes for a strong case for wanting to continue with the collaboration with the tobacco industry,” Assunta said. “The background document is skewed toward supporting a decision to continue ties with the tobacco industry.”

The new ILO policy document recounts efforts since 2013 to secure funding toward programs aimed at eliminating child labor in tobacco-growing communities from a number of donors, which included conversations with the EU delegation in Malawi and Irish Aid, a proposal to the European Commission in Zambia, a request to the U.N. Development Assistance Plan II in Tanzania, and a proposal to the U.K. Department for International Development’s Leave No Girl Behind funding window.

The ILO notes efforts to raise additional public and other funds for the elimination of child labor in these communities “have so far been unsuccessful.”

Thus, according to the document, if despite efforts toward resource mobilization the ILO is still unable to secure alternative funding for current programs funded by the tobacco industry, the director-general is given the “discretion to consider the possibility of extending the PPPs for a limited period, subject to aforementioned strict safeguards.”

The ILO’s dilemma

The task force’s mandate is to coordinate efforts by U.N. agencies on tobacco control. Any U.N. agency or task force member that has issues in adopting the model policy can come to the task force for expert assistance, including dealing with issues of conflict of interest.

But ILO’s case is not an easy discussion, especially as it involves funding. The task force, according to the source with knowledge of the discussions, is trying to mobilize resources around NCD prevention and control, but hasn’t had luck so far.

“You know the situation with NCDs support globally is … near catastrophic,” the source familiar with the task force’s work shared. “The whole NCD response globally is unfunded, including the U.N. system. Obviously, if we have funds, we will definitely try to help our members who receive support from the tobacco industry, to help and diversify. But frankly speaking, I don’t think we’re at that stage where we can kind of select this alternative as alternative for the funds they receive for tobacco.”

Devex reached out to ILO for comment on the issue, but the agency has decided not to comment beyond what is included in its policy document for the moment, ILO Spokesperson Hans von Rohland told Devex.

Assunta sees the current amount in question — over $15 million — as a “pittance” compared with how much the tobacco industry makes from the bulk of its customers from developing countries, the majority of whom are considered poor. Tobacco companies, she said, are benefitting more from the relationship than ILO.

“It looks like the tobacco industry needs the ILO more than the ILO needs the tobacco industry,” she said. “Why is ILO bending [over] backwards to accommodate this miniscule amount of money to spend in five or six countries?” she said. “It has been familiar with the issue for more than 10 years. ILO knows what it has to do.”

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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.