ILO must shake off tobacco industry yoke

 

Mary Assunta and Ulysses Dorotheo

Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA)

On 1 November the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Governing Body will make a decision about continuing or ending its relationship with the tobacco industry. However, the  reference document (GB.331/POL/5) prepared by the ILO’s secretariat, the International Labour Office (the Office), to assist the tripartite body to make an informed decision appears to have the fingerprints of the tobacco industry all over it, as the document is skewed towards supporting continued collaboration with the tobacco industry. The decision may well be a foregone conclusion unless something dramatic happens.

The ILO at its previous Governing Body meeting (330th Session) in March 2017 decided to postpone the decision on whether it should (a) continue in its collaboration which includes grants, or (b) cut ties with the tobacco industry. These two options, which were offered in the previous background document (GB.329/POL/6), have altogether disappeared for this 331st Session. The current document merely proposes that the Governing Body decide to request the Director-General to further develop and implement a strategy on the ILO’s engagement with the tobacco sector subject to certain conditions.

Apparently, it has not dawned on the Office that the many years of the tobacco industry’s corporate social responsibility activities in addressing child labour in tobacco growing have not made a significant dent in the problem and that any more years of ILO collaboration with the industry will not solve the problem. In fact, through all the years of expressing concern for child labour on one hand, the tobacco industry continued on the other hand to buy cheap leaves grown and harvested using child labour.

Currently, through its public-private partnership (PPP) programme, the ILO has two grants from the tobacco industry to address child labour in tobacco growing in about 5 countries: US$ 10,114,200 from Japan Tobacco International (JTI) (2011 – 2018) and US$ 5,332,835 (three grants since 2002) from Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) a non-profit organization funded and governed by transnational tobacco manufacturers and leaf tobacco trading companies. Both grants run out in 2018.

In its latest background document, the Office extolls the virtues of the tobacco industry’s good works of addressing child labour, while admitting it has no idea of the exact number of children involved in producing tobacco leaves. It also reports that despite great efforts at fund raising, it simply cannot do without tobacco money. It even claims that should the funds cease, it will “cause serious harm in the many communities where the ILO is operating with tobacco industry funding”. The ILO’s work is much wider and bigger than just specifically addressing child labour in tobacco growing, but the background document appears to have some input from tobacco industry lawyers justifying the industry’s continued support.

While citing Malawi as an example where tobacco growing contributes significantly to the national economy and where collaboration with the tobacco industry must continue, the Office has also apparently totally ignored the Tobacco and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOAWUM) letter to the ILO Governing Body requesting they “prohibit cooperation and public-private partnerships with the tobacco industry at the upcoming 331st session of the Governing Body.” According to the TOAWUM, the structure of the public-private partnerships with the tobacco industry almost by definition excludes the participation of the organization representing the workers on the ground and is an inappropriate model to fund ILO programs.

The Office either downplays or totally ignores the compelling reasons for the ILO to discontinue its partnership with the tobacco industry in line with the October 2016 Model Policy for agencies of the UN system to ensure separation between activities of UN agencies and those of the tobacco industry to prevent tobacco industry interference. The Model Policy was circulated through the UN Inter-agency Task Force on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (UNIATF), of which the ILO is a member, and subsequently endorsed in June 2017 by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in its resolution (E/2017/L.21) encouraging UN agencies to develop policies that would place a firewall between the UN and the tobacco industry, specifically:

  1. Encourages members of the Task Force, as appropriate and in line with their respective mandates, to develop and implement their own policies on preventing tobacco industry interference, bearing in mind the model policy for agencies of the United Nations system on preventing tobacco industry interference, in order to ensure a consistent and effective separation between the activities of the United Nations system and those of the tobacco industry;

While this resolution is straightforward on developing and implementing a policy on preventing tobacco industry interference, the ILO has provided a legalistic argument on why it is not bound to adopt this policy. Claiming that the ECOSOC resolution is non-binding, the Office believes that ILO is only obliged to bring the resolution to its Governing Body for consideration but not necessarily to adopt and implement it.

The ILO should take its cue from the UN Global Compact (UNGC), which on 13 September 2017 announced its decision to permanently exclude the tobacco industry from participating in the UNGC. Companies whose business involves manufacturing or producing tobacco products will be delisted, effective 15 October 2017, along with businesses associated with producing landmines or nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. This would clearly exclude ECLT and JTI, which are members of the Child Labour Platform of the UNGC Human Rights and Labour Working Group, for which the ILO Office provides the Secretariat.

If the ILO had any doubts, these recent policy developments by international agencies should be sufficient to dispel any confusion on the need to disengage from the tobacco industry. They provide clear guidance for the ILO to sever its ties with the tobacco industry; however, the Office is advising its Governing Body to go rogue and continue its collaboration with the tobacco industry.

It is perhaps not coincidental that at this historical moment, a new “foundation” funded solely by Philip Morris International proposes to tackle the problems of tobacco growers through “independent” research and advocacy.

Continuing to partner with and accept money from the tobacco industry through any form will tarnish the ILO’s reputation. The ILO governing body must adopt the Model Policy and cut ties with the tobacco industry.