ILO eyes decision on tobacco ties by year-end

Geneva (AFP) –


The International Labour Organization chief said Tuesday he hoped the UN body would resolve the controversial issue of whether to cut ties with the tobacco industry by the end of the year.

"We will be returning to this issue when our governing body next meets in November, ... and hopefully we can come up with an agreement at that point," Guy Ryder told AFP in an interview.

"It's a difficult question," he acknowledged, adding "I don't think it's any secret we have a divided opinion in our governing body."

The United Nations' labour agency has been slammed for its partnerships with tobacco companies and accused of jeopardising global efforts to regulate tobacco use and reduce the negative health impacts of smoking.

The ILO, which is the only UN agency that continues to receive money from the tobacco industry, has until now justified those ties as a way of helping improve the working conditions of the some 60 million people involved in tobacco leaf growing and production worldwide.

- Funding valuable activities? -

"The question is should or should the ILO not receive funding from the tobacco industry to undertake activities ... which in themselves I think are regarded as important and valuable activities," Ryder said.

Since 2002, the agency has received more than $15 million from Japan Tobacco International and groups linked to some of the world's biggest tobacco companies for "charitable partnerships" aimed at reducing child labour in tobacco fields.

But activists and civil society groups have insisted that tobacco-funded programmes had little impact in improving workers conditions.

They argue that a partnership with a major UN agency was allowing tobacco companies to portray themselves as a responsible corporate actor even as their products were killing millions of people each year.

The ILO's governing body has scheduled and postponed making a decision on whether or not to continue its tobacco industry partnerships several times over the past 15 months.

The organisation's tripartite structure, including representatives from employers, labour unions and 187 member-states, can make it particularly tricky to reach consensus on difficult issues.

Votes cast by governments in ILO's governing body count double those cast by the two other categories.

Ryder explained that "the employers' group consider that it is legitimate and proper to continue to maintain financial support from the tobacco industry."

The workers meanwhile were "more hesitant about that, and the governments are divided," he said.

While there is a large group of governments in favour of cutting all financial links to the industry, "there are some who take the contrary view," he said.

He said a number of African countries and especially tobacco-producing countries were opposed to breaking up with Big Tobacco, but did not provide any further details.

Civil society groups who have closely followed discussions on the issue at the ILO have said most resistance is coming from African countries, including some like Uganda which ironically have strong anti-tobacco laws on the books at home.