International Labour Organization (ILO)

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The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations (UN) agency, focused on issues related to labour such as international labour standards, child labour, social protection and unemployment.1


The ILO states that it aims to “bring together governments, employers and workers to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programs”.23 As of April 2021, ILO parties represented 187 Member States.

The ILO is an observer to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).4 This means that ILO officials are allowed to attend the public and open sessions of the Conference of the Parties of the WHO FCTC, but have no voting rights.

Relationship with the Tobacco Industry

The ILO was one of the last UN agencies to maintain links with tobacco companies, following the UN adoption of a non-binding ‘model policy’, developed in October 2016, to ensure that FCTC measures were consistently applied across all UN agencies. This policy unequivocally states that “engagement with the tobacco industry is contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values”.5

Partnership with Tobacco-Funded ECLT

From 2002 until 2018, the ILO had a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing Foundation (ECLT), a tobacco-funded organisation which describes itself as “a global leader in preventing child labour in tobacco agriculture, and protecting and improving the lives of children in tobacco-growing areas”. British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Philip Morris International (PMI) and Imperial Brands (previously Imperial Tobacco) have been members of the ECLT since its creation in 2000.67

  • For more information on the ECLT, its history, leadership, tobacco company membership, and impact on child labour practices, click here.

The ILO has had three partnerships with the ECLT:8

  • The first agreement covered the period 2002 to 2010 and aimed to fund research on child labour practices in Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, and East Africa, and specifically, to eliminate child labour in Tanzania.
  • The second agreement covered the period between 2011 and 2015 and focused on child labour in Malawi.
  • The third agreement covered the period between 2015 and 2018, and was aimed at reducing child labour practices in Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania, promoting dialogue among tobacco-growers organisations and developing advice on hazardous tobacco farming work.

In March 2017, ILO disclosed that it had received more than US$5.3 million from ECLT, but stopped short of providing details on how the funding was spent.7

The ILO’s contract with ECLT was not renewed after it ended in June 2018.9

For more information, see the section below: An End to Tobacco Industry Funding?

Partnership with Japan Tobacco International

From 2011 to December 2018, the ILO had a separate PPP with JTI, worth over US$10 million.8

The main output of this PPP was the so-called ARISE programme. Fully funded by JTI and managed by not-for-profit organisation Winrock International, it aimed to end child labour and promote workers’ rights and occupational health and safety in Brazil, Malawi and Zambia.10

The ILO’s contract with JTI was not renewed after it ended in December 2018.

For more information, see the section below: An End to Tobacco Industry Funding?

However, an employee of JTI spoke at the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, which was co-sponsored by the ILO. See below for details.

How ILO Partnership Benefited Tobacco Companies

Tobacco companies have repeatedly used their connection with the ILO to rehabilitate their corporate image and present themselves as good corporate citizens, despite the harms caused by tobacco products.11

Below are examples of how tobacco companies have used PPPs with the ILO to further their own interests.

BAT: ECLT Membership Smokescreen and CSR Initiative

A 2006 peer-reviewed study by Otañez et al concluded that BAT’s involvement in ECLT programmes in Malawi did little to tackle the “overall problem of child labour and the number of child labourers in Malawi.” They stated that BAT’s funding was focused on “modest efforts to rehabilitate schools, build wells, train villages in bookkeeping and build community awareness on child labour issues.”12

Indeed, BAT’s own internal documents showed that the programmes were developed to further BAT’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda, diverting public attention away from the low prices paid by BAT to tobacco farmers in Malawi.12

PMI: Promotion of ILO Connection

In 2015 PMI misused its connection with the ILO when the tobacco company placed a rolling banner on its website promoting the World Day Against Child Labour, prominently showing the ILO logo.13

PMI kept the banner on its website for months, only removing it when requested by the ILO Office to do so.7

PMI homepage displaying ILO logo prominently (screenshot taken of archived copy of 5 November 2015)

JTI: CSR and Company Promotion

JTI used its PPP with the ILO to rehabilitate its image as a “responsible company” and promote working in partnership with government. In November 2017, the homepage of JTI’s corporate website was entirely dedicated to portraying the company’s “working in partnership to end child labor”.

JTI’s corporate homepage (accessed in November 2017)

The website also used a quotation from Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the ILO, to justify JTI’s involvement in PPPs. The quotation was not dated and the original context in which it was made was not referenced.

JTI’s corporate website using quote from ILO Director-General to justify tobacco company’s participation in PPPs (accessed in November 2017)

Pressure to Cut Ties with the Tobacco Industry

The ILO was strongly criticised for its partnership with tobacco companies and not adhering to the UN policy on preventing tobacco industry interference.714

In March 2017, the ILO stated that in order to address potential conflicts of interest arising from its acceptance of direct funding from tobacco companies, it would no longer use tobacco money to fund research into hazardous child tobacco farming or develop guidance on safe tobacco working practices.7 However, it repeatedly deferred a decision to review its partnership.81516

In July 2017, Dr. Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat stated:

“They (tobacco companies) have masqueraded as partners for decent and well-meaning programmes designed to improve the lot of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.”

She added:

“Given its role in spreading death and disease among millions of people and exacerbating poverty, the tobacco industry can only ever be a hindrance to global development. It needs to be shown the door.”17

In October 2017, more than 200 organisations and leaders in 57 countries issued an open letter to ILO, asking the organisation to cut ties with the tobacco industry:

“The ILO risks tarnishing its reputation and the effectiveness of its work if it chooses to continue these partnerships with the tobacco industry. Such relationships contravene the WHO FCTC and enable the tobacco industry to tout its relationship with a reputable institution while continuing to undermine public health policymaking, exploit farmers, and obstruct farm workers’ right to collective bargaining”.14

At the ILO session in March 2018, da Costa e Silva reiterated that “the tobacco industry is part of the problem, not the solution”,18 adding that “Decent work deficits in the tobacco sector must be addressed through an integrated strategy”, and “child labor must be eliminated everywhere, including in tobacco growing areas”.18

Further open letters to the ILO in June19 and October 201816 urged the organisation to cut its industry ties by ending its contracts with JTI and ECLT.

An End to Tobacco Industry Funding?

In late 2018, the ILO bowed to pressure from the WHO and public health organisations around the world and decided not to renew its contracts with Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI).9

At its meeting on 8 November 2018, the ILO announced the launch of an “integrated strategy” and its decision to organise a future “tri-partite” meeting, which aimed to:

“promote an exchange of views on the further development and the implementation of the strategy, with among others the participation of the directly affected countries and social partners in the tobacco sector”20

It did not state which specific parties would be involved in this meeting.

The ILO also decided “to continue efforts to mobilise various sustainable sources of funding from the public and private sector with appropriate safeguards”.20

In response to the ending of the ILO’s remaining contracts with the tobacco industry in 2018, the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA) said that they had set “an important precedent” in resisting tobacco company interference and that:

“Rejecting funding from tobacco companies will allow the ILO to maintain its impartiality and enhance its capacity to address the issues that trap workers in systemic poverty including unfair contracts, collusion by companies over leaf prices, and inflation of the costs of farm inputs”.9

In October 2019, the FCA reported that the ILO had “reaffirmed its commitment to no longer rely on funding from tobacco companies and affiliated organisations”, and had “endorsed an integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector, which will be implemented free from tobacco industry money”.21

As of 2022, however, the ILO remains listed as “non-executive advisor” to the ECLT board.2223

JTI presence at ILO sponsored event

In May 2022, Charlie Watson, an employee of JTI, spoke at a side event at the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in Durban, South Africa.24252627 The conference was co-sponsored by the ILO and promoted by ECLT. Watson’s role as Human Rights Director at JTI was not included on the conference website, where he was described as a “responsible business advocate”.282425 The side event was titled “Public and private sector collaboration: Integrated approaches to prevent and address child labour” and the event description stated that it had “a focus on the cocoa sector” but did not refer to tobacco.25 ECLT promoted this side event, stating that attendees would “Hear how #ECLT brings together a sector to drive progress to #EndChildLabour”, and pointed to Watson’s role at JTI.27

Relevant Links

TobaccoTactics Resources

TCRG Research

For a comprehensive list of all TCRG publications, go to the Bath TCRG’s list of publications.

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  1. International Labour Organization, Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward, report, 10 June 2021, accessed June 2022
  2. International Labour Organization, Mission and impact of the ILO, undated, accessed June 2022
  3. M. Peiris, ILO should drop the tobacco industry – Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 18 October 2017, accessed October 2017
  4. World Health Organization, International intergovernmental organizations accredited as observers to the COP, 2021, accessed April 2021
  5. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Model policy for agencies of the United Nations system on preventing tobacco industry interference, full text, undated, accessed June 2022
  6. The Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation, About us, 2017, accessed November 2017
  7. abcdeInternational Labour Office, Sixth Item on the Agenda ILO cooperation with the tobacco industry in pursuit of the Organization’s social mandate, Governing Body 329th Session, Geneva 9-24 March 2017, accessed October 2017
  8. abcInternational Labour Office, Fifth Item on the Agenda ILO cooperation with the tobacco industry in pursuit of the Organization’s social mandate, Governing Body 331st Session, Geneva 26 October – 9 November 2017, accessed November 2017
  9. abcFramework Convention Alliance, ILO Ends Contracts With Tobacco Companies – Will It Be Forever?, 8 November 2018, accessed November 2019
  10. ARISE, What we do, 2017, accessed November 2017
  11. M. Rowe, Dossier: Tobacco’s big child labour problem, Geographical, 10 May 2019, accessed May 2019
  12. abM.G. Otañez, M.E. Muggli, R.D. Hurt, et al, Eliminating child labour in Malawi: a British American Tobacco corporate responsibility project to sidestep tobacco labour exploitation, Tobacco Control, 2006; 15(3)224-230
  13. Philip Morris International, PMI homepage, website, undated, archived 5 November 2015, accessed November 2017
  14. abFramework Convention Alliance, FCA calls on ILO to cut ties with Tobacco Industry, 16 October 2017, accessed April 2021
  15. J. Lei Ravelo, ILO postpones decision on tobacco industry cooperation, Devex, 10 November 2017, accessed June 2022
  16. abFramework Convention Alliance, Open Letter to the ILO Governing Body, FCA blog, 30 October 2018, accessed May 2019
  17. V. da Costa e Silva, Time to ban the wolves in sheep’s clothing, 11 July 2017, accessed October 2017
  18. abV. da Costa e Silva, Session of the 332nd Session of the Governing Body, 8–22 March 2018, Transcript of speech, 14 March 2018, accessed June 2022
  19. Letter to ILO on tobacco industry contract renewals, Open letter, 7 June 2018, accessed May 2019
  20. abInternational Labour Organization, Decision concerning an integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector, ILO record of decision, 8 November 2018, accessed May 2019
  21. Framework Convention Alliance, The ILO ends contracts with tobacco companies, 31 October 2019, accessed November 2019
  22. ECLT, 2019 Annual Report, undated, accessed April 2021
  23. ECLT, Our Board Members and Partners, website, undated, accessed June 2022
  24. ab5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, Event speakers, website, undated, archived 18 May 2022, accessed May 2022
  25. abc5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, Side event 14: Public and private sector collaboration: Integrated approaches to prevent and address child labour, website list, undated, archived 18 May 2022, accessed May 2022
  26. 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, SD14: Public and private sector collaboration, YouTube, 18 May 2022, accessed June 2022
  27. abThe ECLT Foundation (@ECLT Foundation). ‘Strengthening cross-sectoral collaboration and increasing funding flows for action to end child labour in agriculture is essential to #eliminatechildlabour’, tweet, 28 May 2022, tweet, 5 July 2022, 12:23PM
  28. Charlie Watson, Linkedin profile, undated, accessed May 2022