Amid allegations of racial discrimination, busts on union organizing, low wages and poor working conditions at an Ikea plant in the U.S., Swedish furniture giant Ikea is in considerable hot water. These sorts of claims against multinational corporations are nothing new in a post-NAFTA world; what’s striking, though, are the players involved.
In 2008, Swedwood, Ikea’s manufacturing subsidiary, opened its first U.S. factory in Danville, Virginia. After the decades-long decline of the region’s textile industry, workers desperately needed the jobs. Two years earlier, an Indian firm had bought out a large textile mill and shipped hundreds of jobs overseas.
It’s an all too familiar story in the United State’s industrial core. Manufacturers, seeing the far lower wages and poorer worker protections in developing nations, pack up their American factory and, in turn, desecrate Rust Belt economies.
This time around, though, Ikea was opening a factory in a struggling blue collar town. The reasoning behind opening a factory in Danville wasn’t based on corporate goodwill, however. Rather, as Nathaniel Popper reported in the Los Angeles Times, it was based on the same free trade economic policies that ravaged Danville the first time around.
In other words, as Bill Street, a union organizer who attempted to organize the factory workers, said in Popper’s report: “…Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico.”
Indeed, Popper notes, factory workers in Ikea’s home country of Sweden:
Enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government- mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.”
What’s more, while their Swedish counterparts enjoy the benefits of a union, American Ikea factory managers hired on a notoriously anti-union law firm and required workers to attend anti-union meetings.
Certainly, if Ikea workers in Danville were permitted to unionize, and the majority of them want to, a lot of the atrocious working conditions are likely to cease. But what’s to stop Ikea from simply closing shop and moving on? Odds are good that Ikea, like the textile industry before it, will turn its back on Danville.
Photo credit: istock