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IKEA’s Workers Not at the Table

by JEFF BALLINGER

Obviously at a loss to explain how workers in an un-free nation can organize resistance to a brutal boss, IKEA’s new “Sustainability Report” says the right to Freedom of Association is “not applicable” in China, which is the company’s largest source of products.

Compared to the mental gymnastics engaged in by other companies addressing this issue, it appears refreshingly honest and may be the starting point for meaningful change that can affect workers everywhere – since all the world’s workers compete with China’s $3-a-day wage, party-controlled unions and low environmental standards.

Starting about twenty years ago, image-conscious corporations began publishing elaborate “social responsibility” reports, often to rebut damaging reports from the far-flung supply chain factories – mainly dealing with workers being cheated or abused. Most “brands” such as Gap or Nike do not own or operate sewing operations directly, so the process involves some more-or-less independent audit and follow-up visits to show improvement being made in “compliance” with the corporation’s code of conduct for supplier factories – often by changing the terms of evaluation.

The storyline is quite familiar by now, after three decades of production driven by the outsource-everything imperative: Image-conscious brand operating in repressive environment seeks to downplay workers’ complaints with assurances that all local rules are being followed.

But there are a couple of interesting twists in this IKEA story, twists you won’t learn about by reading the company’s new report.

The repressive environment at issue is the state of Virginia where union organizers have labored mightily to get less than 5% of Virginians protected by union contracts.

Additionally, it is not the typical supplier factory with an arms-length relationship to the brand (i.e., the buyer), but an actual subsidiary of IKEA: “Swedwood,” which opened a $281 million furniture factory in Danville, VA, two years ago that employs 375 people.

Moreover, it is the IKEA brand – from a land of social-democratic harmony, Sweden – that boasts about strong and long-standing ties to the global Building and Wood Workers International (BWI).

A labor journalist from the Swedish metalworkers magazine recently had to jump through hoops just to pose a few questions to the factory manager, Bengt Lundgren. His article recounts the struggle of the U.S. machinists’ union in terms that make Danville sound more like an export processing zone near Dhaka or Santo Domingo.

Here’s Lundgren describing management’s relationship to the U.S. machinists union (IAMAW), which is trying to organize Swedwood workers: “I have absolutely no dialogue with the union. That’s how the American system works.”

Anders Elghorn, the journalist, writes: “When BWI general secretary Anita Normark visited Danville along with some of her colleagues, she had to wait two days before they let her in. Kjell Dahlström, former chairman of the union Skogs- och Träfacket, had the same problem even though he is a member of IKEA’s team for monitoring IKEA manufacturers around the world.” All this even though, as Elghorn reports, Swedwood signed a global agreement with the BWI.

I have long believed that unions’ cooperative relations with corporations in this area of foreign-factory monitoring is a net negative; what may be won in a few cases of “triage”—getting a group of workers some back pay or a few union activists re-hired—is far outweighed by the public-relations benefit to businesses of seeming cooperation with progressive forces.

Most of IKEAs new report is boilerplate Corporate Social Responsibility reporting with pseudo-scientific measurements of everything from wages and benefits to “harassment, abuse and disciplinary actions.” Especially dubious is the 99.2 percent “Freedom of Association” ranking for non-China Asia-based production – and, of course, the 100 percent score for North America, which of course includes the Swedwood facility in Danville.

While the new report is littered with half a dozen references to a partnership with BWI, the global union had almost zero influence in trying to assist the U.S. union trying to organize Swedwood workers in Danville.

According to the Swedish metalworkers’ magazine, Dagens Arbete, “All of the Swedwood workers we met over a period of three days had the same message: they are threatened, they are bullied and the management is fostering an anti-union atmosphere.”

Perhaps the best measure of IKEA’s commitment to workers’ collective rights is to look at its performance in a country where workers are—compared to China—relatively free to organize.

JEFF BALLINGER researches global worker rights issues. He can be reached at: jeffreyd@mindspring.com

This article was originally published by Labor Notes.

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