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Sunday, April 2, 2023

Why Africa must lead fight to end child labour in tobacco sector

If the world is going to achieve the UN’s sustainable development agenda and make a real difference in peoples’ lives by 2030, it will be because we take many bold steps that contribute to progress on the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.

Child labour
Child labour in a cocoa plantation

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is attempting to take one such bold step by working to end child labour in the tobacco sector with its Integrated Strategy to Address Decent Work Deficits in the Tobacco Sector.

It will not be an easy task for the ILO to no longer accept money from a tobacco industry known to abuse corporate social responsibility activities, mobilise sustainable funding from the public and private sector with “appropriate safeguards” and maintain consensus between and among governments, employers and workers.

But make no mistake: Maintaining the status quo is not a viable option. And African countries must take the lead in the fight to address the root causes of child labour in the tobacco sector.

A Focus on the Root Causes

The lesson learned from previous corporate social responsibility projects sponsored by the tobacco industry and affiliated groups was that tobacco companies evaded their responsibility to meaningfully address the root causes of child labour. From seed to sale, tobacco companies continued to deny the fundamental rights of workers, particularly freedom of association and collective bargaining.

To end child labour in the tobacco sector we must take action on the following:

  • Close the living wage gaps in supply chains, uphold workers’ right to organise and keep labour contracts transparent. Employers in the tobacco sector are in a unique position to immediately take action on these recommendations.
  • Ensure that tobacco workers are able to secure their freedom to associate and bargain collectively by prioritizing policies, partnerships, and programs – free from the influence of corporations that undermine the workers’ and public health. Governments can immediately take action to improve workers’ bargaining position and stop tobacco companies from abusing corporate social responsibility activities that gloss over the damage their business does to the communities in which they operate.
  • Take a whole-of-government approach: Ministries of Health and Finance must play key roles in discussions on the ILO decent work agenda in the tobacco sector. A whole-of-government approach makes the most sense because the tobacco use epidemic kills more than 8 million people annually with the majority of deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.
  • The ILO must secure sustainable funding to support workers and farmers in the tobacco sector. Funding must not include money from the tobacco industry and its front groups.

Africa is a Battleground

A worrisome pattern is emerging during technical meetings and sessions of the Governing Body of the ILO: a few government delegations from African countries either question or outright oppose efforts to shield the ILO from the interests of the tobacco industry.

Given that the tobacco industry has failed to meaningfully address the root causes of child labour in the tobacco sector, it is time for the Africa group at the ILO to explicitly endorse efforts to “secure alternative funding to support tobacco workers and farmers that does not include any tobacco industry money directly or via front groups.”

In July, the representative of the Government of South Africa said that “statements concerning labour standards in the tobacco sector and the agricultural sector more generally were beyond the WHO’s mandate of public health.”

This prompted the representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) to clarify that it was the responsibility of Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to ensure that “public health authorities were insulated from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry.”

Back in March 2018, a Government representative of Uganda, speaking on behalf of the Africa group said that, “as the ILO was a specialized agency of the UN, its organs were free to discuss and depart from any recommendations of the UN General Assembly and ECOSOC, including the Model Policy, as and when required by the ILO mandate.”

This statement prompted a sharp rebuke from the Tobacco Control Forum which consists of the Ministry of Health Republic of Uganda and civil society organisations (Center for Tobacco Control in Africa, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Uganda Health Communications Alliance, Uganda National Health Consumers’ Organisation, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development).

“There is great prevalence of child labour in many countries in the tobacco-growing areas including Uganda which exposes children to many hazards, notably long working hours, heat exhaustion, respiratory orders, injuries, accidents, poisoning and health problems from being exposed to pesticides, musculoskeletal injuries, and green tobacco sickness, which is caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin from contact with wet tobacco leaves which is a threat to public health,” the Tobacco Control Forum stated in its letter to the Government of Uganda.

International Law and Local Realities

International law is unequivocal and local realities vary from one country (tobacco-growing or not) to another. Every single government must muster enough political will to uphold the law.

The ILO and the tobacco industry were strange bedfellows, to begin with because there is a consensus within the United Nations system to keep the tobacco industry at arm’s-length. This is why in 2018, more than 100 public health and sustainable development organisations from around the world called on the ILO to end its financial relationship with the tobacco industry.

According to the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution E/2017/L.21, all UN agencies should “implement their own policies on preventing tobacco industry interference.” And Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC calls on Parties to act to protect public health policies with respect to tobacco control from “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”

Many governments have an incentive to keep money flowing in from the tobacco industry, create jobs and boost economic growth. The reality is that tobacco is a major source of foreign exchange for some tobacco growing countries (more than US$ 500 million annually).

But workers including children pay a heavy health price for tobacco cultivation and enjoy very little of the returns from the multibillion-dollar industry.

Countries have a variety of approaches available to promote alternative livelihoods and some tobacco farmers have successfully switched to alternative crops. With strong support from their governments, many more workers can quit tobacco farming in the future.

We know that wages are often below the minimum threshold in many developing countries and that start-up and production costs are very high for tobacco workers. Child labour occurs because workers are trying to earn extra money to meet the basic needs of their families such as food, housing and education.

We also know that the tobacco industry’s priorities are long-term profitability and cost savings. In Malawi, it is estimated that the tobacco industry cut costs to the equivalent of $10.7 million through unpaid child labour from 2000-2010, for instance. Such cost-cutting measures contribute to the health, economic burdens that affect tobacco workers and make it harder to eradicate child labour in the tobacco sector.

By Mafoya Dossoumon, Framework Convention Alliance

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