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UN labour agency shelves decision to end Big Tobacco ties

November 09, 2017 - 12:19 PM

GENEVA - In an embarrassing retreat, the U.N. labour agency says it has shelved a decision whether to end its ties with Big Tobacco, correcting its own statement earlier Thursday indicating it would cut ties to an industry faulted for major health risks.

International Labor Organization spokesman Hans von Rohland cited a mix-up in which the "tripartite" U.N. agency — bringing together business, labour groups and governments — had previously said it would stop taking funds from the tobacco industry and end their public-private partnerships.

"We sent you the wrong version of the decision taken by the ILO Governing Body on ILO co-operation with the tobacco industry," von Rohland said in an email to reporters. "The ILO has not at this stage made a decision to end co-operation with the tobacco industry."

"We are very sorry for this error in transmission," he added.

Instead of the four-point decision initially sent to reporters, the agency issued a revised, one-point decision saying its governing body had instructed its director-general to present an "integrated ILO strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector" at its next meeting in March.

Anti-tobacco groups say ILO is the last U.N. agency to retain ties to the tobacco business.

The Geneva-based body has struggled to calibrate its mandate to help ensure proper working conditions, particularly in an industry linked to child labour, amid a broader U.N. fight against the health risks of tobacco use.

The ILO has received over $15 million through partnerships that aim to fight child labour in the industry. They include deals with Japan Tobacco International as well as with a non-profit group that is linked to some of the world's biggest tobacco companies.

Mark Hurley, an international director with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the postponement of an ILO decision "disappointing," saying in a statement that tobacco companies "should have no place in a U.N. agency like the ILO or any responsible organization."

"Tobacco companies use membership in respected organizations like the ILO to portray themselves as responsible corporate citizens and divert attention from their role in causing a global tobacco epidemic that is projected to kill one billion people worldwide this century," he said.

ILO has already committed to abide by the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which prevents the tobacco industry from any role in policymaking.

On the labour front, the agency says manual harvesting predominates in the tobacco industry, because of the fragility of leaves, and presents "a unique hazard" to both adult and children harvesters who can suffer from "green tobacco sickness" — or nicotine poisoning caused by contact with the skin.

The industry means a lot to livelihoods to millions of workers, often in poor countries: For example, the impoverished sub-Saharan country of Malawi gets more than 70 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings from tobacco exports, ILO says.

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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