The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) has thrown its weight behind global calls for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to cut ties with Big Tobacco. The group insists that the ILO’s engagement with Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, a nonprofit funded by tobacco companies since 2002, reflects a conflict of interest in the United Nations (UN) system.
This call is coming as the governing body of the ILO meets this month to decide whether it would shutter one of the tobacco industry’s last-remaining avenues of interference in the UN, making it harder for it to weaken, delay and block live-saving public health and labour policies.
The vote comes two weeks after the Director-General, Michael Moller issued a report calling on the ILO governing body to end its public-partnerships with Big Tobacco. The Director-General’s report comes on the heels of over 150 public health and labour leaders calling on the ILO to cut ties with the deadly industry and as the Secretariat of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) is demanding the ILO sever ties.
“ILO and Big Tobacco’s split is long past-due: The ILO must join other U.N. agencies in casting this deadly industry out for good,” said Akinbode Oluwafemi, deputy executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN). “Big Tobacco has no place in any U.N. space. This month, the ILO has the opportunity to stand on the right side of history and show Big Tobacco the door.”
To date, the ILO has received more than US$15 million from tobacco corporations for joint programs, including more than US$10 million from Japan Tobacco International (JTI) for an effort to curb child labor in tobacco farming. The Director-General’s report finds, however, that the focused initiatives do little to curb child labor in tobacco fields because they do not shift the tobacco industry-driven cycle of poverty for tobacco farmers that forces children into the fields.
The tobacco industry commonly promotes programs like these to boost its public image and maintain influence in policymaking spaces. In the same vein as JTI’s effort, Philip Morris International recently launched a Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, to which it will give nearly $1 billion over the next decade.
“The ILO is one of the last avenues of Big Tobacco’s influence into the U.N.,” said Jaime Arcila, Latin America organizer with Corporate Accountability’s tobacco campaign. “It’s high time the ILO recognize the harms Big Tobacco poses to public health, workers and the environment and end its partnerships with the industry.”
Despite Big Tobacco’s abusive labor practices and its membership violating a core tenet of the Global Tobacco Treaty, its influence still runs deep in the ILO: In November 2017, the Governing Body failed to come to a decision on whether or not to end its private-public partnerships with tobacco corporations.
In Nigeria just as elsewhere, the tobacco industry has been identified with monopolistic practices that have made farmers go the extra mile to meet their demands, including forcing their kids as young as five years of age to work 24/7 on tobacco farms.
Also, British America Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) is yet to wriggle from anti-labour practices leveled against it by some ex-workers, some of whom now have debilitating illnesses due to poor factory conditions and exposure to tobacco dust.