There is a long well-documented history of cooperation between the private/business sector and the United Nations (UN), as well as other organizations affiliated to the global body. This association dates back to the inception of the UN in 1945. The private sector plays an active role in the work of the UN and most of its affiliates by providing key resources such as expertise, knowledge, access and reach, which are pivotal to the advancement of UN goals. The scarcity of resources, complexity of global problems and the failure of multilateral mechanisms to address the myriads of global issues necessitated direct cooperation between the private sector and the United Nations, especially in the 1990s.
A new phase in the engagement between the UN and the private sector was marked by the launch of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) in 2000. UNGC is a principle-based framework that encourages businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on their implementation. Since the launch of the UNGC, the private sector’s role in helping the UN realize its development goals, particularly the Millennium Development Goals (now Sustainable Development Goals), has raised public consciousness about the sector’s activities and its political acceptability globally. More importantly, it is seen as complementing the efforts of governments across the world. On an ongoing basis, the UN Secretary-General continues to seek ways to renew and reform the UN and its agencies’ collaboration with the private sector. This is in appreciation of the vital role that the latter plays in the global society.
, the UN has drawn up guidelines to facilitate the formulation and implementation of partnerships between its organizations and the business sector. The guidelines, among other things, are intended to ensure the integrity and independence of the UN. In one of its guidelines on cooperation, the body notes that “Relationship with the business sector has become more important as the role of business in generating employment and wealth through trade, investment and finance for development has increasingly been recognized. UN member states also stress the importance of private investment in development.” Parties are also expected to collaborate and “agree to work together to achieve a common purpose or undertake a specific task and to share risks, responsibilities, resources and benefits.”
An exemplar of this partnership with the private sector is the collaboration between the UN and 16 leading global banks and foremost climate scientists, the aim being to enhance transparency and better managementof risks and opportunities that climate change presents to businesses.
It is against this background that one examines the partnership between the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the tobacco industry in order to contextualize criticisms of the collaboration in recent years. ILO is a United Nations agency dealing with labour issues, particularly international labour standards, social protection, and work opportunities for all. The ILO has partnered with the tobacco industry in an industry-funded initiative, Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT).
The initiative is meant to support research on child labour in tobacco growing in some countries where it is prevalent. This development partnership support, which started in the 1990s, was necessitated by the prevalence of child labour in many countries in tobacco-growing areas. The ILO office report of its 331st session stated that the targets of the various phases of the ILO country programmes on child labour in tobacco were either attained or surpassed. For example, the report notes that “an independent evaluation of the first phase (2002 – 2007) of the United Republic of Tanzania component (of the ECLT-funded research) found that this PPP was relevant and acceptably efficient and effective.” The phase “achieved 99 per cent of the target number of children to be withdrawn from child labour (830) and 100 per cent of the target number of vulnerable families to be trained in alternative income-generating activities (430).” The later phases of the project have also achieved considerable successes, with the latest agreement with the ECLT signed in 2015 coming to an end in June 2018.
In spite of these achievements, there is a growing opposition to the collaboration between ILO and the tobacco industry, especially by health professionals, multilateral health agencies and the anti-tobacco coalition. In its declarations at the recently concluded 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health held in South Africa, participants asked the ILO to “immediately” end its collaboration with the tobacco industry. They argued that the continued engagement with tobacco firms is putting ILO’s reputation on the line and undermines its mandate to promote decent work. About 200 civil society groups issued a letter at the conference pressuring the ILO to severe ties with the industry, especially its financial relationship with tobacco companies and other entities funded by the industry.
ILO employers responded by expressing their opposition to the call. Their proposal, which supports the continuation of ILO relationship with the tobacco sector, enjoys the backing of countries such as the United States and a group of African countries. The employers’ union at the 332nd session of ILO’s governing body in March 2018 had protested the austerity measures taken by the organization, which led to 5.2 per cent cut in their annual incomes. The measures are said to be connected to the planned severance of ties with the tobacco industry.
Experts argue that while coordinated global efforts by multilateral health agencies to control tobacco smoking and curtail the tobacco industry is laudable, it would not be appropriate to play political games with an otherwise well-intentioned initiative. Therefore, calling for the severance of ties between ILO and tobacco companies in the fight against child labour would amount to throwing the baby away with the bath water.
Child labour is a problem that has been in agriculture for centuries. It cuts across all manufacturing industries. It is therefore pertinent not to exclude any industry in the search for the best solutions to address it. It is, noteworthy that considering the controversial nature of the tobacco business, tobacco companies are increasingly becoming conscious of the need to conduct their businesses under strict and legitimate standards. Apart from maintaining its stance on prevention of underage access to tobacco products and enforcement of youth access laws, the tobacco industry has also shown strong support for compliance with child labour policy by partnering with the ILO.
Ogunlade is of the Centre for Promotion of Enterprise and Business Best Practices, Abuja.