The Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO) said its Governing Body had decided on an “integrated strategy” towards the issue of whether it should maintain its relationship to Big Tobacco, but acknowledged that the strategy “requires further development.”
The UN labour agency has long been under fire for its partnerships with tobacco companies and has been accused of jeopardising global efforts to regulate tobacco use and reduce the negative health impacts of smoking.
The ILO has until now justified its ties to the tobacco companies as a way of helping improve the working conditions of the some 60 million people involved in tobacco growing and production worldwide.
The agency has over the past decade received around $15 million from some of the world's biggest tobacco companies towards two “charitable partnerships” aimed at reducing child labour in tobacco fields across a range of countries.
But health and anti-tobacco advocates have been clamouring for the agency to join other UN agencies — most notably the World Health Organisation — in flatly refusing to engage with the industry.
The ILO's governing body, which has debated the issue and postponed a decision three times in the past year and a half, finally managed to take a stand of sorts in the final hours of a two-week meeting.
It resolved “to continue the ongoing project-based efforts to eliminate child labour using Regular Budget supplementary account funds and other public funds in the short term.”
This suggests the ECLT and ARISE programmes aimed at removing children from tobacco fields in a long line of countries will continue their work, but without funding from the likes of British-American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International.
– Cutting tobacco ties? –
However, the governing body did not appear to take a clear stand on whether ILO should in principle cut its ties to Big Tobacco.
It merely stated that the agency should “continue efforts to mobilise various sustainable sources of funding from the public and private sector with appropriate safeguards.”
When asked to explain what “appropriate safeguards” referred to, ILO said it “did not wish to comment on the decision.”
A diplomatic source present during the negotiations meanwhile told AFP that the wording was “not specifically targeted at the tobacco industry.”
It remains “a question of interpretation”, the source said.
Health and anti-tobacco advocates meanwhile cautiously welcomed Thursday's decision.
Corporate Accountability, a US-based civil society group, described it as “a step forward that effectively ends the ILO's financial partnerships with the tobacco industry and affirms the ILO's commitment to ending child labour.”
But spokeswoman Taylor Billings warned in an email to AFP that the safeguard issue remains “entirely unclear”, and that there was nothing in Thursday's decision to prevent ILO from receiving funding from tobacco companies in the future.
“As of now, the tobacco industry could still use the ILO as one of its last routes of influence over the UN system,” she said.