IKEA's Dirty Little Secret

I love IKEA. Their stuff is cheap. It looks good. They were among the first to use same-sex couples in their advertising. In 2002 the Swedish company ran a print ad in the Netherlands that showed two men kissing while their daughter perched atop a pair of tables, the copy declaring, "My daddies are also a set."

So I was mortified to learn that in the 1970s and '80s they used slave labor. That's what it's called when you use the cut-rate work of political prisoners who get locked up in their cells every night and can't exactly negotiate a raise or even a coffee break.

The news that IKEA used East German forced labor was reported as early as July 2011 in a German television documentary aired on WDR, a regional public broadcasting station. They explained that during the '70s IKEA worked hand-in-glove with the East German government, capitalizing on the cheap labor source. The factory that produced their top-selling Klippan sofa was right next to a prison in Waldheim.

At the time IKEA issued a statement saying they'd determined that the charges were unfounded, and the story seemed to disappear. Last week, though, it came back with a vengeance when SVT, a Swedish public broadcasting station, aired its own damning report.

So far IKEA has offered a contradictory response. Spokeswoman Jeanette Skjelmose said IKEA was doing their own investigation, interviewing former employees and requesting documents from the STASI files: "So far there are no indications that we would have asked that prisoners be used in manufacturing or known about it ... What we're looking into now is whether it could have happened anyway, without our knowledge."

On the other hand, another spokesperson, Ylva Magnusson, told the German DPA news agency that IKEA would certainly be open to compensating former forced laborers if the facts are properly established. It seemed like a feeble attempt to buy their way out of the scandal while still pretending innocence, so that the squeaky clean, progressive image of the world's largest furniture retailer wouldn't suffer.

But on May 3, after some digging in old East German records, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a report that the Swedish company used Cuban prisoners, too. And Miami's Nuevo Herald reported that the 1987 deal, in which Cuba would produce 45,000 tables and 4,000 sofa parts for IKEA, was part of a larger agreement between companies controlled by East Germany's and Cuba's secret police that included antiques, cigars, and Cuban weapons. As proof, El Nuevo Herald published the signed agreement found in STASI files.

The only funny thing is that you get what you pay for, at least in Cuba. The Cuban-made furniture was apparently so badly made that it couldn't be used, and that part of the deal was later canceled.

A lot of the documents were discovered in the STASI archives by researcher Jorge L. García Vásquez, a Cuban who has lived in Germany since the 1980s, and who was himself interrogated by the STASI in 1987. You can find many of the actual documents in his blog, STASI-MININT Connection. While most of the documents concern general East Germany-Cuban agreements, some specifically mention IKEA, including a deal for furniture components that was for 12 million German marks.

It's getting more and more indefensible for the family-owned IKEA to claim innocence. According to an article in The Local, the 2011 documentary apparently included an interview with a former prison chief explaining that prison labor was a standard part of furniture production in East Germany.

WDR also cited STASI documents that claimed that IKEA's multi-millionaire founder Ingvar Kamprad, a public-relations disaster all by himself, thought cooperating with the communist authorities was "completely in the interests of society."

The only question for me is whether or not IKEA will get off scot-free, and if Cuban prisoners will ever get the reparations promised to German forced laborers. The same Cuban government is still in power and is still auctioning off Cuban slave labor to the cheapest bidders. Nobody seems to care.

Especially in Europe. I was in Paris in November 2009, when the entire continent was marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Commentators lamented that North Korea was still hanging on as one of the last Communist police states, but I don't remember a word about Cuba.

It was like the island was in some kind of tropical and moral limbo. In fact, forced labor is only part of the problem of political prisoners in Cuba. They are held in conditions so bad that several have gone on hunger strikes. Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February of 2010 shortly after the celebrations in Europe, and Wilmar Villar in 2012.