Ikea is facing allegations that it used Cuban prisoners to make its products in the 1980s.
The claims follow allegations this week that East German political prisoners were forced to make furniture for the Swedish retailer from the 1970s.
According to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a deal to make Ikea furniture in Cuban prisons was hatched using East German trading connections.
The agreement was signed in September 1987, according to files held in the Stasi archivesfiles, after a delegation of East German business representatives went to Havana for talks with the Cuban Interior Ministry.
Talks were held with several government officials, including Enrique Sanchez, the head of the state company Emiat which was responsible for furnishing the homes of the Cuban political elite. According to the files, the production sites discussed were "incorporated in the Interior Ministry's prison facilities".
The contract signed required Cuba to produce 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children's tables, and 4,000 three-piece suites.
Ikea reacted to the reports, which emerged following an investigation by Swedish television, by saying it had begun its own inquiry and was keen to see the Stasi files to check for evidence and compare them with the company's own records.
A spokeswoman said Ikea "condemned the use of political prisoners" in its production "in the strongest possible terms". She added the company took the claims very seriously, though denied that Ikea knew it had been using prison labour. (From Kate Connolly, IKEA faces allegations that it used Cuban prisoners to make its products, The Guardian, May 3, 2012).
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday that she urges IKEA to continue its investigation of the allegations.
“All entities, including major corporations, have a moral responsibility to assure they are not used by tyrannical regimes to further violate human rights,’’ she said.
In Miami, former political prisoners said forced labor is habitual in Cuba’s correctional system, although none had any information about the alleged collaboration with IKEA.
“Although there was forced labor, political prisoners in Cuba refused to do that type of work,” said Ernesto Díaz, who was a prisoner when the agreements with IKEA were allegedly in place.
The issue of forced labor in Cuba also arose in a different context several years ago when three Cuban men forced to work 16-hour shifts at 3½ cents an hour repairing ships for a Cuban joint venture in Curacao sued in U.S. federal court in Miami. (Alfonso Chardy, Report: IKEA used Cuban prison labor to make furniture in the late 1980s, The Miami Herald, May 5, 2012).
Questions of complicity may arise when a business enterprise contributes to, or is seen as contributing to, adverse human rights impacts caused by other parties. Complicity has both non-legal and legal meanings. As a non-legal matter, business enterprises may be perceived as being “complicit” in the acts of another party where, for example, they are seen to benefit from an abuse committed by that party.
As a legal matter, most national jurisdictions prohibit complicity in the commission of a crime, and a number allow for criminal liability of business enterprises in such cases. Typically, civil actions can also be based on an enterprise's alleged contribution to a harm, although these may not be framed in human rights terms. The weight of international criminal law jurisprudence indicates that the relevant standard for aiding and abetting is knowingly providing practical assistance or encouragement that has a substantial effect on the commission of a crime. (U.N. Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights, Para. 17 Commentary)
liability for violations of human rights under a complicity theory has become more important as a mechanism for enforcing human rights norms, especially against businesses . . . . The legal basis of complicity remains unsettled as a matter of transnational law but extends to aiding and abetting the violation of human rights or humanitarian law (United Nations 2009). Complicity notions play a significant role in the liability framework under emerging international corporate governance soft law frameworks . . . . The issue of complicity will tend to revolve around a number of factual determinations: whether through action or inaction, a company enabled, exacerbated or facilitated the specific abuses, intent or reckless disregard, and proximity. (From Backer, Larry Catá, Globalization and the Socialist Multinational: Cuba and ALBA’s Grannacional Projects at the Intersection of Business and Human Rights, supra).The potential breach of human rights norms by IKEA and its use of Cuban prisoners for a joint IKEA-Cuban transaction may take complicity one step farther. IKEA may be deemed to breach its own obligations under soft law frameworks, like the U.N. Guiding Principles, and may even be liable for violating the laws of the state of its incorporation or those of states where the goods were sold. However, it may also be possible that Cuba itself may not be in breach of any of its obligations, either under its own domestic law or its legal obligations to which it has bound itself. The state duty to protect human rights is limited to those obligation sin international law that a state has obligated itself to incorporate into its domestic legal order.