Cigarette Butt” by Lindsay Fox [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

March 15, 2018; Devex

Labor advocates had big hopes for the 332nd session of the International Labour Organization’s meeting this week, but once again, the organization postponed a vote on whether to end its relationship with tobacco companies. Torn between money and mission, which group of stakeholders will the ILO choose?

The ILO is under pressure from two opposing sides. Tobacco companies provide funding for social projects, such as programs to end child labor. Devex reported in November that “the tobacco industry currently funds two ILO programs, amounting to roughly $15 million.” The companies have a strong interest in this relationship because of the credibility it lends to their CSR efforts and the boost it gives to their image. NPQ has covered how nefarious actors often use charity to cloak their misdeeds, and Big Tobacco has been trying for several years to engage with philanthropic and human rights groups.

On the other side of this stakeholder equation are the workers the ILO was created to serve. Their mission claims they are “devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights,” particularly through advancing the Decent Work Agenda. These workers are not being served by Big Tobacco despite the industry’s efforts to convince the public otherwise. The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) noted “that the tobacco growing sector is characterized by poor working conditions, exploitation of workers and abuse of their rights, especially their right to join a trade union.”

In anticipation of this ILO vote, more than 200 organizations joined the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) calling for the ILO to end its partnership.

Multiple reports have documented that abusive contracting arrangements…lock tobacco farmers and their families in generational cycles of poverty and indebtedness. Paired with well documented price fixing by major tobacco multinationals, a picture emerges of a deliberately planned and well-orchestrated strategy by a US$700 billion industry to boost its profits off decreasing leaf prices at the expense of farmers and governments in Global South countries…the tobacco industry has derived nearly twenty times more in economic benefit from unpaid child labor in Malawi alone than it spent on all its social programming.

The UN has declared that “Engagement with the tobacco industry is contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values,” a result of both Big Tobacco’s business practices and the health risks of its product. Jaime Arcila, Latin America organizer with Corporate Accountability’s tobacco campaign, told Ghana News Online, “The ILO is one of the last avenues of Big Tobacco’s influence into the UN.”

At the ILO convening, advocates were concerned about “behind-the-scenes compromises between workers and employers.” That was what happened in November; discussion deadlocked when several African nations and the United States expressed support for an alternative proposal that called for the ILO to retain its relationship with big tobacco and reexamine its policies for alignment with UN recommendations. Japan Tobacco International and the industry-funded Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation expressed support for ILO’s postponement of a final decision.

The letter from over 200 individuals and organizations pointed out that “The ILO risks tarnishing its reputation and the effectiveness of its work if it chooses to continue these partnerships with the tobacco industry.” Of course, they are absolutely correct; the conflict of interest here is plain.

NPQ has previously urged organizations to consider risk as a strategy. In this case, by failing to take a stand that risks their funding, the ILO instead risks their credibility, their fidelity to their mission, and their workers’ welfare. In this situation, failing to choose is itself a choice, and not one likely to help tobacco growers worldwide.—Erin Rubin