Before the start of the war in Ukraine, many iconic pieces of furniture from the low-cost Swedish homeware store Ikea were made in Belarus. Ikea did not attempt to hide this fact, clearly labelling furniture which had been made in the last dictatorship in Europe.
Belarus is one of the largest producers of affordable timber in Europe. Last year, Belarus exported wooden goods worth $3 billion, half of which to the European Union. The major of this wood trade was in finished wooden furniture, chipboard, and fibreboard, much of which went to Ikea.
What the Swedish company has not advertised, alleges investigative media Disclose, is the use of forced prison labour in some of these Belarusian products.
From Belarusian prisons, to European stores
According to the investigation, at least ten Belarusian suppliers to Ikea, almost half of its main suppliers, had links to penal colonies over the last ten years. Belarus, which has used brutal force to suppress pro-democracy and dissenting voices, uses these penal colonies as a space to brutalise and torture detainees.
One of the Belarusian opposition leaders, Maria Kalesnikava, was transferred to one of these penal colonies as a political prisoner. These colonies are patently against the company values of Swedish firm of Ikea, which assures its customers that it does not use “forced” or “prison” labour in its products.
By openly selling “Made in Belarus” goods, it should be the responsibility of the company to check for the origin of materials included in its products. When investigative journalists visited an Ikea locations across Europe this year, finding that Belarusian products, potentially built with slave labour, were still on shelves.
In response, an Ikea company spokesperson said that Ikea was “deeply concerned about the situation in Belarus” and had stopped developing its activities in the Belarusian market. Notably, this is only after pro-democracy protests were quashed in the autocratic regime.
At the start of this year, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Inter Ikea Group “ceased business activities and began to terminate contractual relations with all suppliers in Belarus.”
The relationship between Belarus and Ikea has developed continuously since 1999. Swiss company Ikea Trading SA first expanded into Belarus, with Belarusian partner holding companies later being opened in 2007.
During this time, the Belarusian State, which owns all of the country’s forests, became Ikea’s second largest supplier of timber after Poland. As part of Ikea’s “Go Belarus” sourcing strategy, the company tripled its purchase of Belarusian timber, which jumped from 130 million in 2018 to 300 million in 2021, according to Belarus’ state news agency.
Even before the pro-democracy protests in 2020, Belarus had a poor track record on human rights, but few questioned the Swedish giant’s business relations with the authoritarian state.
Ikea stayed in the market even following a report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, which decried in September 2020, after months of protests, “the systematic nature of violence inflicted by riot police and prison guards in which thousands of innocent people have been confined” as well as “cases of rap perpetrated with truncheons, electrocutions, and other forms of physical and psychological torture.”
Disclose identified that Ikea supplier Mogotex, which was active in the textile industry, was actively involved in the Belarusian prison system. The company produced sewed products for Ikea, including table linen, curtains, and towels. Disclose alleges that Mogotex worked with at least four Belaurisan penal colonies.
The investigative media identified the IK-15 labour camp as one of the prison colonies that cooperated with Mogotex. In interviews conducted with former detainees, the camp was described a place of “absolute horror”, defined by torture and human rights abuses towards political prisoners.
Belarusian NGO Viasna listed the presence of 94 “employed” political prisoners at the IK-15 prison. One prisoner interviewed by Disclose said that he was unaware that the textiles were going to Ikea, but said that there were “rumours” within the prison that the goods were being exported to Europe.
Mogotex is also believed to have worked with the IK-2 juvenile prison, which was so notorious that the head of the prison was placed on a list of sanctioned persons by the EU as early as 2006. “Workers” at this prison were paid less than 2 a month to make fabrics for export. Disclose alleges that at least six Ikea suppliers worked with this prison in 2014-2019.
- EU Commission proposes to keep forced labour products off the internal market
- EU needs to 'get tough' on widespread slave labour goods, say experts
While European companies are quiet about their Belarusian suppliers, Belarusian penal colonies are more than happy to boast of their prison labour.
The website of prison Rypp 5 brags of its “high-quality materials and large selection of models”, as well as its exports to Russian, France, and Germany. The prison even offers “production to order.” Some of Rypp 5’s products made their way to Ikea via through a supplier, Disclose says.
Too little, too late?
Now, finally, after twenty years of business, this commerce with Belarus has ended. When Russia launched its surprise invasion of Ukraine, Ikea group suspended the exports and imports from Russia and Belarus.
However, questions remain as to why the company had not withdrawn from Belarus sooner, in face of publicly available information about human rights abuses. The company had been alerted on numerous occasions about its suppliers’ links with penal colonies, even internally. Several Ikea employee unions demanded the company stop using Belarusian materials in 2021.
This is not the first time that Ikea has been found to have sourced materials from prison labour. In 2012, the company officially apologised for using political prisoners to produce goods in former East Germany (GDR) in the 70s and 80s.