Human Rights, Politiks

Are there skeletons in IKEA’s closet?

The Swedish furniture manufacturing giant may have used forced labour in the 70s and 80s, using political prisoners from communist Germany and Cuban criminals to assemble its products.  These are the claims made by prisoners who worked in the jails, and that are shown in supporting documents from the East German secret service.

Miriam Valero

IKEA is the largest and most renowned international furniture manufacturer in the world.

Over the years, the Swedish firm has successfully marketed an image of itself encompassing values such as innocence, purity and happiness, winning themselves millions of customers and billions in profits.

However, the inoffensively coloured world IKEA has created has become grey and murky, after recent information cam to light about the way they made furniture in the past, by sourcing cheap labour and selling their products at a very low cost, the cornerstone of their success.

According to Stasi (secret police from the German communist era) documents, the firm used political prisoners of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Cuban criminals to manufacture many of their products.

The inmates would have worked in forced conditions as slave labourers without a salary, making some of the most successful products for the company that still sell today.

In May, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) accessed documents from the GDR archive, showing that the Scandinavian company signed an agreement with East German authorities to transfer the manufacture of some of their products to them, along with Cuba, to benefit from cut-price labour.

A contract between state-controlled furniture manufacturing companies in GDR and IKEA would have been drawn up in 1987, after which time state companies would use prisoners to manufacture furniture which would then be sold at IKEA.  The agreements also allowed the Scandinavian firm to open new factories in the country.

Some ex-directors of the communist German furniture manufacturers have corroborated claims that the products they were making in the jails were indeed for IKEA, and that the Swedish firm was well aware of the situation.

However, ex-bosses of the East German businesses insist they did not use forced labour. Prisoners were offered recompense for their work, and it assisted with their integration back into society.

This version of events goes against the testimonies of the ex-political prisoners of the GDR, who maintain they participated in the manufacture of furniture in prisons such as Waldheim in Saxony.

According to their statements, they would sit alongside criminal prisoners, making various furniture components for the Swedish company which would go on to become some of the best selling and most successful pieces, such as the Billy bookcase.

One of the prisoners was Hans Otto Klare, held at Waldheim prison for attempting to flee East Germany.  The German television company WDR describe the working conditions he and other workers were subjected to: working in premises with blacked-out windows, with no rest, no security, and no salary.

Other prisoners who worked with Klare have confirmed they were unaware of who they were working for, only realising the parts they were producing were for IKEA when they saw them in stores.  Some prisoners have already denounced the Swedish firm.

Cuba: more cheap labour

As well as using East German political prisoners, IKEA also subjected Cuban prisoners to forced labour for the manufacture of their furniture.

La estantería Billy

It would appear that there was a very real business relationship behind closed doors between the East German authorities and the Cuban regime, slowly strengthening links throughout the 70s and keeping commercial ties with capitalist enterprises until the fall of the Berlin wall.  IKEA is one of them.

According to Stasi documents, in 1987 East German (GDR) companies travelled to Cuba to negotiate an agreement with the Cuban furniture maker Emiat, which had links with Cuban Ministry of the Interior’s prisons, to produce their products.

In the contract, eventually signed by IKEA, it was agreed the Cuban prisons would produce 4000 sofa parts, 10,000 children’s tables, and 35,000 dining tables.

The Cuban inmates, many of whom were political prisoners, would also work in slave-like conditions.

What does IKEA say?

The Swedish firm maintains that it had no knowledge of such occurrences, and announced it would open an independent external investigation into the case.

Ingvar Kamprad, fundador de IKEA.

IKEA insists that they condemn the employment of political prisoners and state that “If this really has happened, it would be totally unacceptable and profoundly regrettable”.

However, archived Stasi documents show the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, in another light.  In the records, he denies being ‘officially’ aware of the use of political prisoners in the manufacture of his products; but if they had been used, “in IKEA’s opinion, it would have been in the interests of society”.

(Translated by Claudia Rennie – Email:

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