Opinion: Looking away will not end child labor in tobacco fields

The tobacco industry likes to portray itself as a positive economic force. Yet tobacco farmers across Africa face a harsh economic reality: The industry derives such huge profits in part because it maneuvers to pay as little as possible for the crop that is the basis for its products.

This practice is unfair and perpetuates inequality. What’s more, the cycle of poverty that tobacco farmers must confront perpetuates child labor in this industry.

Discussions about child labor often focus on countries instead of global businesses. The International Labour Organization and UNICEF recently cited population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures as the reasons for rampant child labor in Africa.

They failed to highlight the business sector’s role or the repercussions of cost-cutting to maximize profits. Instead, they urged the business sector to work with governments, workers’ organizations, and, in effect, United Nations agencies to solve the issue.

To deliver a better future for children … national governments need to stop permitting children to work in tobacco fields and start holding the industry accountable.

The world’s children would be better served if the tobacco industry and its front groups — organizations that claim independence from the industry but are established, funded, or controlled by the industry’s corporate interests, thereby influencing policymakers and the public in its favor — are fully excluded from the U.N. system.

While some U.N. agencies, such as the World Health Organization, uphold strong policies against interacting with tobacco companies and their front groups, others do not. Industry allies have been able to exploit loopholes that welcome organizations to the table, provided they don’t directly sell tobacco products.

These intermediaries have helped the industry gain access to U.N. stakeholders and audiences through participation in U.N. initiatives or opportunities to partner with or sponsor such initiatives. This has proven very useful to the industry’s public relations campaigns as it enhances their credibility by association.

Tobacco industry’s inclusion has not ended child labor

Perhaps the most well-known example of one such organization is the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, or ECLT, a member of the UN Global Compact. ECLT was created by the industry two decades ago and those ties remain close: Its funding, as well as 13 of 14 board members in 2020 still come directly from the industry.

And its activities confirm that the industry refuses to police itself: ECLT does not call for changes in business practices that could alleviate poverty among tobacco farmers, and consequently, diminish the rate of child labor.

Furthermore, ECLT does not advocate for the improvement of tobacco workers’ working and living conditions through unionization and collective bargaining. Neither does it support the external audit of tobacco companies and their supply chains, which could help identify and hold accountable those who profit from child labor.

ECLT also does not oppose industry interference in the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which recommends that governments help tobacco farmers switch to more economically viable livelihoods.

Instead, it works directly with governments, arranges public-private partnerships with U.N. agencies, still engages an “ILO designated technical advisor” in its board, and is an active member of the UN Global Compact. ECLT provided more than $5.3 million to ILO for research and “dialogue” from 2002 to 2017 to reduce child labor in several countries.

It also funded a similar project in the Philippines, with UNICEF staff in an advisory capacity. In 2018, ILO announced that it would end tobacco funding and not renew its partnership with ECLT and Japan Tobacco International.

Meanwhile, ECLT’s tobacco company funders, Philip Morris InternationalBritish American TobaccoJapan Tobacco International, and Imperial Brands, benefit from citing its activities, including its associations with governments and UN agencies, in their environmental, social, and governance reports.

Africa must start challenging the economic myth

Perhaps change will begin in the countries where tobacco is grown, as they see through and reject the industry’s economic myth, along with its front groups. One such country is Malawi.

In his mid-May state of the nation address, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera declared that the country must grow crops other than tobacco because “tobacco has no future.” He attributed the decline in demand and falling tobacco leaf prices to the global reduction of tobacco use.

Malawi’s farmers have supplied transnational tobacco corporations for decades and researchers estimate that over half of children from Malawi’s tobacco farming families work in the fields. It is one of seven tobacco-growing African countries listed in the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2020 report on goods produced with forced or child labor.

The U.S. even stopped the importation of tobacco leaves from Malawi in 2019, based on “information … that reasonably indicates” it was produced using forced labor. These restrictions were only partially lifted in May of this year.

But governments look to U.N. agencies for guidance, so change is also needed there. It would set a positive example for governance in Africa if the whole U.N. system — including the UN Global Compact to which ECLT is still a member — formed a consensus to reject any partnership or association with the industry and its front groups. Guidance exists; U.N. agencies just need to implement it.

When U.N. agencies don’t act proactively, health advocates are left to call for change.

Exclude the tobacco industry, including ECLT

There are efforts to expel ECLT from participation in the UN Global Compact. Its objective is to support companies that conduct business responsibly and are working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

After initially permitting tobacco companies to participate, UN Global Compact delisted them as members in 2017 — but ECLT was not excluded. Advocates point to how ECLT’s continued participation violates the compact’s policies, the Model Policy for Agencies of the UN System on Preventing Tobacco Industry Interference, and WHO’s FCTC. Yet ECLT remains a member and is promoting activities and content to mark the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.

To deliver a better future for children in Africa and other tobacco-growing regions, national governments need to stop permitting children to work in tobacco fields and start holding the industry accountable.

They and the U.N. system need to reject partnerships and donations from the industry. That includes ECLT, which should be treated for what it is: A smokescreen for the tobacco industry’s public relations. ECLT does not deserve legitimacy on African or international stages.

Source: Devex