Did Ikea hire political prisoners in Communist countries to make furniture?

The prison labour allegations have prompted an investigation into Cold War era practices

With its whimsical ads, clever product displays and giant ballrooms for the kids, furniture giant Ikea generally enjoys a positive reputation among consumers, even if they grumble about confusing assembly instructions and missing Allen keys. This is, after all, an outfit whose biggest public scandal to date was its decision to change the font in its 2010 catalogue.

Which makes the controversy now enveloping the company in Europe all the more unusual. Ikea is being accused of using political prisoners in the former East Germany and other Communist countries to make some of its furniture in the 1970s and 1980s. The allegations, first reported by German public TV channel WDR last year, and amplified last week by another TV program in Sweden, have prompted Ikea to launch its own investigation of old Stasi secret police files.

While Ikea is known to have sent manufacturing work to some former Communist East European countries starting in the 1960s, WDR suggested some of those factories were actually operated by prisoners. “The program identified one East German factory located next to a prison in the town of Waldheim, where Ikea’s popular ‘Klippan’ sofa was produced,” according to a report in Britain’s Independent newspaper. “A former prison guard told WDR that furniture production was part of prison labour.”

Meanwhile, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper claimed it had seen East German documents that refer to a 1987 Ikea deal they helped cut with Cuban authorities to use prison labour in the island country. The contract reportedly included an agreement to make 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children’s tables and 4,000 “Falkenberg” three-piece suites (couch and arm chairs). When delivery of furniture was delayed because of poor quality, East German officials to travelled to Cuba to sort out the mess.

In response, Ikea has said it is taking all of the allegations of using forced labour “very seriously” and attempting to speak with people who were with the company 25 years ago. Ikea has also stressed that, since 2000, it has required suppliers to meet a strict code of conduct.