Tobacco control advocates are mounting pressure on delegates attending the 332nd session of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Governing Body in Geneva to sever ties with tobacco companies.
The calls came amidst concerns by activists that the Ugandan delegation, which delivered a statement on behalf of the African group, backed the ILO to continue receiving funds from Big Tobacco.
In their statement, the Ugandan delegation had frowned at the decision of the ILO to move "from cooperation to annihilation" of the tobacco industry.
While questioning whether it is in the best interest of the child to sever ties with the tobacco industry in the fight against child labour, the Ugandan group maintained that there should be cooperation with the tobacco industry to promote decent work in the agricultural sector.
Uganda has one of the strongest tobacco control laws in Africa, banning all forms of tobacco-related socially responsible activities and voluntary contributions from the tobacco industry among other measures.
"Nigeria's delegation and that of other countries currently under tobacco industry assault should distance themselves from the Ugandan position," said Akinbode Oluwafemi, Deputy Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria.
"ILO and Big Tobacco's split is long past due. The ILO must join other UN agencies in casting this deadly industry out for good."
The ILO Governing Body is the executive body of the agency which meets thrice every year - in March, June, and November - to take decisions on policies and agenda of the organisation.
Among the agenda at the ongoing session, which began on March 8 and is expected to end on March 22, is an integrated ILO strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector.
Although global estimates are not available, ILO research across countries show that child labour is widespread in the tobacco sector. Children of both sexes are involved in stringing, reaping, weeding, ridging, grading, watering nurseries, transplanting, applying fertilisers, and harvesting. Weeding accounts for more than half of the labour required and is done predominantly by women and children.
Children are also engaged in such hazardous work as the application of pesticides, carrying heavy loads, and night work.
Despite the huge labour investment, tobacco farmers struggle to break even.
A World Bank research in Indonesia showed that tobacco farmers were more likely than former tobacco farmers to need credit, and that a certain number of farmers used credit to pay for education and daily expenses, in addition to inputs to production.
In countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, and the United States, the Integrated Production Systems had been introduced in which 'contract farmers' enter into legal agreements with leaf-buying companies with the latter providing agricultural inputs on credit and sometimes cash loans. In Malawi, the ILO stated, some contract farmers make a profit but 15 per cent of contract farmers surveyed reported being in debt after the end of season tobacco sale. Similarly, in Indonesia contract farmers failed to make a profit.
At the 331st session of the ILO Governing Board which held between October and November last year, it erroneously issued a statement that it would stop taking funds from the tobacco industry and end their public-private partnerships.
A few hours later, the agency "corrected" its statement saying "the ILO has not at this stage made a decision to end cooperation with the tobacco industry."
The ILO is the sole UN agency still accepting funds from the tobacco industry, according to anti-tobacco campaigners, receiving more than $15 million through partnerships that aim to curb child labour in tobacco farming.
Three weeks ago, Michael Moller, the UN Director-General, called on the ILO to end its public partnerships with Big Tobacco, joining the nearly 200 public health institutions who had taken a similar position against the tobacco industry.
This month, more than 100 individuals and civil society groups signed a statement urging the ILO to institute the strongest possible policies to prohibit cooperation 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," the statement read.
"Such relationships contravene the WHO FCTC (World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) 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."
Tobacco is produced in 124 countries, according to the ILO, employing some 40 million workers located primarily in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, and the United States.
The global cigarette market is currently valued at $683 billion.
But tobacco companies have continued their quest for more money, increasingly targeting vulnerable populations in emerging markets such as in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, according to a report by The Tobacco Atlas.
Tobacco companies targeting world's most vulnerable to increase profits - Report
"The ILO is one of the last avenues of Big Tobacco's influence into the UN," aid Jaime Arcila, Latin America organiser with Corporate Accountability's tobacco campaign.
"It's high time the ILO recognise the harms Big Tobacco poses to public health, workers and the environment and end its partnership with the industry."