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IKEA Used Cuban Prison Labor to Build Furniture, New Report Says UPDATE

In Miami-Dade, the only thing most folks know about IKEA is that it's the gigantic store worth a drive all the way to Broward because its hip furniture is so damn cheap. But in Europe, the Swedish giant's image has been rocked by recent accusations that in the 1980s, the young company used East German prison labor to build its furniture.

Those claims sailed under the radar in South Florida, but the newest accusations won't: A major German paper now says it has uncovered documents showing that IKEA also signed a contract in 1987 with a Cuban company to produce furniture using forced prison labor on the island.

UpdateIKEA tells Riptide it is "accelerating" its investigation and that the company "take[s] the allegations very seriously." Click through for the full response.

Update 2: IKEA has released an independent report on the allegations. It finds that while several dozen samples were produced in Cuba, they didn't "meet quality requirements."

"There is no evidence that the IKEA Group was aware of the possible use of political prisoners in Cuba," the company says in a statement. Click through for the full response. 

The report comes from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (or FAZ), one of Germany's most prestigious daily newspapers, which also uncovered the earlier documents linking IKEA to East German prison labor.

Here's what the paper found: While combing East German files related to IKEA's contracts in the communist nation, FAZ's reporters discovered that in September 1987, a delegation of East Germans traveled to Havana and met with Enrique Sánchez, the head of Cuban furniture maker Emiat.

The officials, who worked for "IKEA Trading Berlin," signed a contract with Emiat to make 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children's tables, and 4,000 suites, according to a translation of FAZ's reports by German-English daily the Local

The production sites where Emiat made furniture were "incorporated into the prison facilities of [Cuba's] Interior Ministry," the documents show.

"We take this matter extremely seriously," Jeanette Skjelmose, an 
IKEA spokeswoman, told the German press Monday. "We have requested documents from the old Stasi archive and are speaking with people who were with us at that time."

Riptide has also asked an 
IKEA press contact in the U.S. to comment about the reports; we'll update the post if we hear back.

UpdateIKEA sent Riptide this statement about the reports regarding Cuban prison labor:

IKEA products must be manufactured under acceptable working conditions and since 2000 we have had a very strong code of conduct for suppliers (IWAY) in place to ensure this. This includes a zero tolerance of any form of forced or bonded labour. Even prior to IWAY, the use of political prisoners in production was unacceptable to IKEA. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article refers to events that supposedly took place around 25 years ago and we will immediately look deeper into this as part of the ongoing investigation in GDR, as well as Cuba. Since last fall an internal investigation is ongoing to give us a more complete picture of our purchase practices in former East Germany, GDR, during the 70s - and 80s. We take the allegations very seriously. We are now accelerating this investigation and have also taken in external expertise. Before the investigation is complete, we will not speculate on the outcome.

Today, we have one of the world's most progressive and respected supplier code of conducts stating our requirements on fair working conditions. We believe that good working conditions are key to reaching good results both for us and our suppliers.

Update 2: IKEA has released an independent report by Ernst & Young that finds the company never sold Cuban-made furniture and was unaware of any ties to prison labor. The firm analyzed 100,000 pages of documents, interviewed 90 people and opened a hotline for tips on the allegation. 

They found that 71 sofa suits were made in Cuba as samples for IKEA, but that the items didn't meet quality standards. The company never received any other furniture made in Cuba, they say. Here's the company's statement:

In May, media reported that in the 1980's the IKEA Group may have purchased products from Cuba that were made using prison labor. The IKEA Group took the allegations very seriously and initiated an investigation. In May 2012, Ernst & Young's investigation services were engaged to conduct an independent investigation into the purchase practices in Cuba and in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), as trade with Cuba was supposedly initiated by the former GDR state trade organization.

IKEA US President Michael Ward and IKEA of Sweden Sustainability Manager Jeanette Skjelmose met with U.S. lawmakers from the Cuban- American delegation in June 2012 to assure them the inquiry was a high priority.

This investigation has now been completed. The investigation concludes that the IKEA Group has never had any long-term business relations with suppliers in Cuba and that there is no evidence that the IKEA Group was aware of the possible use of political prisoners in Cuba.

Since May, approximately 20,000 pages of documents from the internal archives of the IKEA Group and 80,000 archived objects at German federal and state archives have been analysed. Around 90 individuals, both active and retired IKEA Group co-workers as well as witnesses from the former GDR have been interviewed. In addition, a public hotline was established and questionnaires to both active and former co-workers were distributed.

The report noted that 71 sofa suites - which included a sofa and two matching chairs - were produced in Cuba as samples for the IKEA Group. At least one set was sent to the former GDR for quality inspection by associates of the IKEA Group. The furniture did not meet quality requirements. There is no evidence that the IKEA Group received other products produced in Cuba. 

Since 2000, the IKEA Group has had one of the most progressive and respected supplier codes of conduct in the world (IWAY) and conducts more than 1000 audits per year to confirm compliance by suppliers. IWAY explicitly prohibits the use of forced labor in production.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink