There has been a significant geographical shift in tobacco leaf farming in recent years, with significant consequences for employees in the sector. (FILE PIC)

THE world’s tobacco companies, which have been widely ostracised in the United Nations, may be ousted from one of their last strongholds in the world body — the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

A letter signed by nearly 200 public health organisations and labour rights groups worldwide is calling on the governing body of the Geneva-based UN agency to expel tobacco companies from its subsidiary membership.

“Tobacco companies victimise farmers and other workers through manipulative practices, including unfair pricing strategies, abusive contracts and child labour. They have no place in a UN agency concerned with fair labour practices and human rights,” says the coalition.

The governing body, which will hold its 331st session from tomorrow to Nov 9, is expected to decide whether to sever the partnership between tobacco companies and ILO.

“If the ILO is to live up to its promise of promoting rights at work, encouraging decent employment opportunities and enhancing social protection, the decision should be an easy one. The governing body must prohibit all members of the tobacco industry from participating in the ILO,” says the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK).

Asked whether the world’s poor nations — where “big tobacco” still has a heavy presence — are losing the war against smoking, Mark Hurley, international director of tobacco industry campaigns at CTFK, says tobacco companies are increasingly targeting low- and middle-income countries that often lack regulations and resources to protect themselves against manipulative industry practices.

“Today, more than 80 per cent of the world’s smokers live in low-and middle-income countries, and if current trends continue, they will account for 80 per cent of the world’s tobacco-related deaths by 2030,” says Hurley.

The letter, addressed to members of the governing body, says tobacco companies use membership in respected organisations like the ILO to portray themselves as responsible corporate citizens when, in fact, they are the root cause of a global epidemic that is projected to kill one billion people this century.

Tobacco companies continue to aggressively market their deadly products to children and other vulnerable populations around the world, mislead the public about the health risks of their products, and to attack every effort to reduce tobacco use and save lives, the letter adds.

“Tobacco companies that spread death and disease across the globe should have no place in a UN agency, or any responsible organisation,” the letter states.

Signatories of the letter include the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, the Voluntary Health Association of India, Action on Smoking and Health and Corporate Accountability International, the African Tobacco Control Alliance, the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention, the Bangladesh Anti-Tobacco Alliance, the Austrian Council on Smoking and Health, the Dutch Alliance for Smoke-Free Society and the French Alliance Against Tobacco, among others.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) obligates its 181 signatory parties to implement proven, effective measures in their countries to curb tobacco consumption, such as increasing taxes, placing graphic, picture-based health warnings on tobacco packs, and banning advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

And countries, including those that are low- and middle-income, are taking bold actions to implement these life-saving policies.

The WHO has stated that the tobacco industry’s interests are in clear conflict with public health goals under the FCTC.

But UN agencies like the ILO continue to work with these companies.

“We urge the ILO to join other international organisations and agencies acting to cut ties with tobacco companies,” says Hurley.

Meanwhile, a report titled “ILO Cooperation with the Tobacco Industry in the Pursuit of the Organisation’s Social Mandate”, submitted in the last meeting of the governing body in February, provides background information on the ILO’s current activities in the tobacco sector.

It highlights the role and responsibilities of the ILO within the broader framework of WHO’s FCTC — to help the tripartite members of the governing body make an informed policy decision regarding the ILO’s future engagement with the tobacco industry.

The study states tobacco is produced in 124 countries, and some 60 million people are involved in growing and processing the leaves worldwide.

Tobacco cultivation is labour-intensive, involving field preparation, building nursery beds, transplanting seedlings, providing continual care as the plants grow, and harvesting and curing.

As with many agricultural crops, most tasks in growing the plants are hazardous.

“Tobacco harvesting presents a unique hazard for children and adults — green tobacco sickness — which is nicotine poisoning caused by dermal contact with tobacco leaves.

“Given the need to handle leaves with care to avoid damage, manual harvesting predominates. This holds true despite the growth of the market for e-cigarettes, for which tobacco can be harvested mechanically,” the study notes.

There has been a significant geographical shift in tobacco leaf farming in recent years, with significant consequences for employees in the sector.

Characterising the nature of the workforce, the report says that for many countries, “tobacco growing, in contrast to manufacturing, still functions as a safety valve that safeguards the livelihood of millions of people, who for the most part, belong to vulnerable social groups”. IPS

THALIF DEEN is a UN bureau chief and regional director of IPS North America, has been covering the UN since the late 1970s

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