Alice Grainger Gasser, corresponding author.
Contributing authors: Leonce Dieudonné Sessou, Fastone Goma, Lutgard Kokulinda Kagaruki, Marty Otanez, Hellen Neima
At the end of October, the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) endorsed its new integrated strategy for the tobacco sector. The decision ends ILO’s involvement in over a decade of tobacco industry corporate social responsibility schemes that have failed to address the systemic exploitation of tobacco growers and farm workers. Expired contracts binding the ILO to Japan Tobacco International and the Ending Child Labor in Tobacco (ECLT) Foundation were not renewed.
By cutting financial ties with tobacco companies the ILO ends its dependency on an industry that exploits weak labour protections, amasses huge profits and leaves tobacco growers trapped in poverty. Its new integrated strategy sector goes beyond child labour to address its root causes. To be funded by contributions from bi-lateral or multi-lateral development funders, the strategy is a breakthrough that empowers the ILO to strengthen protections for tobacco workers across the board and break the cycle that locks them in poverty. While the strategy is global in scope, its implementation will initially focus on Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, to ensure the continuity of ILO’s work in these countries.
Building on recent efforts to reduce tobacco industry influence within the United Nations system, the ILO strategy reaffirms the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Model Policy for UN Agencies and FCTC Article 5.3. It also builds on the momentum to implement FCTC Article 17 on promoting alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers and workers.
The decision on protecting public health policies from the vested interest of the tobacco industry (Decision 18) of the Eighth session of the Conference of the Parties to the FCTC (COP8) encouraged the involvement of FCTC States Parties, the FCTC Secretariat and COP observers in the ILO decision making process.
The Governing Body decision reinforces the ILO’s capacity to act as an independent moderator of the dialogue between governments, employers and workers. It also sends a clear signal to tobacco companies that they must address the root causes of poor working conditions among tobacco growers by closing the wage gaps in their supply chains, upholding workers’ right to organize and keeping labour contracts transparent.
There are several important lessons to be learned from the process for the ILO to end tobacco industry funding. Alongside representatives of governments, the ILO’s unique tripartite structure gives a voice in its governance to representatives of workers (labour unions) and of employers (including the tobacco industry). Within the Governing Body, efforts to end tobacco industry funding were led by workers’ representatives and FCTC-friendly states. The process, which dragged through several Governing Body meetings, offered benefits to those involved from both the labour and health sectors.
Tobacco control networks gained by strengthening their connection with labour officials and unions: in Brazil, Tanzania and Zambia health groups worked at national level with labour officials or unions and/or the press to influence the ILO decision. The African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) used media coverage to generate grassroots pressure on African governments. In Uganda, the Ministry of Health urged the Ministry of Labour to comply with national law on Article 5.3 of the FCTC. Among labour officials, the debate raised awareness of the FCTC and the need for policy coherence.
The ILO process has shown that we still have far to go to develop the intersectoral collaboration needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) health target. During the ILO debate, many labour leaders and officials considered health sector representatives as intruders, not allies. Tobacco control advocates learned to be careful to distinguish between the types of engagement with the tobacco industry that ILO must maintain in order to best protect workers, and the kind that compromise the organisation’s independence and effectiveness.
The international tobacco control and health community need to follow through and build on the lessons learned to:
- Strengthen alliances with workers’ groups, supporting their efforts to protect and empower tobacco growers
- Support alternative livelihoods, while promoting fair living earnings for tobacco farmers and farm workers and fair tobacco leaf prices
- Promote tobacco taxation to garner domestic funding for activities to ensure decent work for tobacco workers
- Facilitate dialogue between Ministries of Health and Ministries of Labour, building on the access that we have developed with labour officials and activists in other sectors
- Follow the implementation of the new ILO strategy, engaging in the dialogue it develops to keep prevention against health hazards high on the agenda
- Finally, keep monitoring tobacco industry interference and engage with other sectors to raise awareness of its implications for their work.
The real meaning of the ILO decision will be negotiated through the details of its implementation at national level. Local tobacco control networks can play an important role in seeing that the spirit of the ILO decision remains intact.