The dark side of IKEA

As a company based in Sweden, which is home to some of the world’s most powerful unions, you would think that IKEA would be an employer that understood the importance of workers’ rights.

And if you read what the company says about itself, it sounds wonderful.

On their website, IKEA says that it takes into consideration “at a minimum” the following: “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.”

That’s quite a mouthful. And it means nothing.

IKEA has a long and unpleasant history when it comes to respecting workers rights and indeed the use of forced labour.

A decade ago, following some very negative publicity, IKEA commissioned an accounting company to look into its practices in East Germany during the Cold War. To no one’s surprise (certainly not a surprise to the people running IKEA) it turned out that both political and criminal prisoners in the Stalinist state were used to manufacture the company’s iconic flat pack furniture. The accountants determined that IKEA was almost certainly aware that political prisoners were used to make their products. From the company’s point of view, hiring what were effectively slaves ensured a higher rate of profit, certainly lowering labour costs compared to what they might have had to pay in Sweden. IKEA apologised, insisting that this would never happen again.

But just three months ago, IKEA was in the news yet again. The last remaining fully Stalinist state in Europe, Belarus, was the focus of attention this time. “Over the past several days, news reports in various markets have focused on the presence of IKEA in Belarus prior to 2022,” stated the company, “including allegations of the use of forced prison labour connected to sub-suppliers. We, at IKEA, take these reports seriously, and are concerned. We are investigating the claims.”

There is little doubt that IKEA will once again publicly apologise.

But even before the Belarus prison labour scandal had time to subside, IKEA once again stood accused of violating the most basic workers’ rights — this time in Poland. At the end of November, Dariusz Kawka, a leader of NSZZ “Solidarność” in IKEA’s Polish operation and a member of IKEA European Works Council, was dismissed from his job on disciplinary grounds without a notice period.

This was despite his union activity which protects him from dismissal without prior approval of the company’s trade union organisation. After an inspection by the State Labour Inspectorate, it was reported that the employer had grossly violated labour law. Despite exchanging letters with the employer, including the corporation’s board of directors, and many other actions to protect Dariusz Kawka from dismissal, IKEA remains unmoved.

That ILO Declaration which IKEA is committed to? It calls on employers to recognise “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”. As I understand it, sacking the leader of the workers’ trade union is hardly compatible with that. It is also a gross violation of the labour law.

Dariusz’s union, NSZZ “Solidarność”, has launched a global campaign on LabourStart demanding that IKEA respect the basic right of its workers to join and form trade unions. Please take a moment to show your support for that campaign here:

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity and also on the website of the Arthur Svensson Foundation.