STASI records suggest IKEA used Cuban prison labor in the 1980s

This story involving labor abuse, Cold War intrigue, and everyone’s favorite discount furniture empire has been brewing for about a week but has gotten surprisingly little attention in the U.S. The Miami Herald reported last Friday: A report that Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

This story involving labor abuse, Cold War intrigue, and everyone's favorite discount furniture empire has been brewing for about a week but has gotten surprisingly little attention in the U.S. The Miami Herald reported last Friday:

A report that Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the 1980s has provoked a strong reaction among Miami exiles.

The German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of Frankfurt, recently reported that in September 1987 Cuban authorities negotiated for 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children’s tables and an unspecified number of sofas to be built for IKEA.

This story involving labor abuse, Cold War intrigue, and everyone’s favorite discount furniture empire has been brewing for about a week but has gotten surprisingly little attention in the U.S. The Miami Herald reported last Friday:

A report that Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the 1980s has provoked a strong reaction among Miami exiles.

The German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of Frankfurt, recently reported that in September 1987 Cuban authorities negotiated for 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children’s tables and an unspecified number of sofas to be built for IKEA.

The newspaper said German reporters found the information while reviewing archives of the Cold War era and that East German officials facilitated the deal with Cuba.…

According to information in the archives, East German officials met with Lieutenant Enrique Sánchez, identified as the person in charge of a Cuban agency known as EMIAT, which supplied patio furniture to diplomatic houses and high-ranking Cuban officials. They discussed furniture to be built “in prison facilities of the Ministry of Interior.”

IKEA has already launched an internal investigation into allegations that it contracted to use East German prison labor during the 1970s and 1980s and now says it will broaden the scope of the inquiry.

According to a follow-up story today, records kept by East Germany’s infamous STASI show that "an IKEA subsidiary in Berlin and an East German company had contracted for Cuban prison labor to build 45,000 tables and 4,000 sofa groupings in 1987" as part of a larger deal between companies run by Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior and the East German government. The deal also "involved Cuban antiques, cigars and guns, according to a researcher in Berlin."

The six Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress have written a letter demanding a meeting with IKEA executives.

This report is just the latest in a slew of bad press for the Swedish furniture giant in recent years, including allegations of bribery in Russia and a recent book alleging that founder Ingvar Kamprad’s past ties to Swedish Nazi groups may have gone on longer than he has admitted.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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