Tobacco growers have expressed displeasure with mounting pressure on the International Labour Organisation (ILO)—a United Nations agency—to end its financial relationship with the local tobacco industry.
In an interview on Friday, Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama) chief executive officer Felix Thole said the growers’ representative body feels the calls are unfair aimed to sideline growers who rely on the leaf for their livelihoods.
Last week, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a US-based organisation, joined by other 100 organisations, presented a petition to ILO, urging it to stop receiving money from tobacco companies.
The group argued that the relationship between ILO and tobacco companies presents a number of conflicts of interests for the UN agency.
It also said that the partnership does not address tobacco industry practices such as the administration of unfair contracts, collusion over leaf prices and inflation of the costs for farm inputs that perpetuate poverty.
There are fears that cutting ties with the tobacco industry would eliminate the current partnership with Japan Tobacco International (JTI) which has invested in ending child labour and promoting workers’ rights in the country as well as in Brazil, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
But in his response, Thole said: “We got a tip of that [petition] and we feel this is unfair because when you are talking about tobacco farmers, they are not just growing tobacco.
“It is wrong to say that tobacco farmers should not be working with ILO in ending child labour. As Malawi farmers, through our member body, International Tobacco Growers Association [ITGA], we expressed our concerns on this to ILO last month and our request is for the petition to be disregarded.”
ILO has been under fire for partnership with tobacco firms and has been accused of jeopardising global efforts to regulate tobacco use and reduce the harmful effects of smoking.
In a written response to a questionnaire on Friday, JTI social programmes director Elaine McKay expressed regret over the matter, saying whatever the outcome, the company will remain committed to continue funding and pursuing its dedicated child labour elimination programmes in the country.
“We regret that over the past months, the important issues of child labour and workers’ rights have been used in political games, with pressure from the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on ILO rather than acknowledging the real progress made in tackling child labour and protecting workers’ rights on the ground,” she said.
Ministry of Labour, Sports, Youth and Manpower Development spokesperson Christina Mkutumula earlier said government is impressed with what most tobacco firms have done in helping to keep all children in school and away from tobacco production.
It is unclear how quickly the ILO will be able to decide on the matter. The agency has already debated the issue and postponed a decision three times in the past year and a half.