Attention IKEA shoppers: yes, the EXPEDIT bookshelf might be the solution you’ve been looking for to sort out your life, but at what cost?
Welcome to Sweden: population 9 million and change; number 6 on the Happiness Index. Here in America (where we rank number 10 on the same scale), we love Sweden, if not for its innovative social programs like a publicly funded health care system and year-long maternity leave for working moms, then certainly for its meatballs with lingonberry sauce and IKEA. We love IKEA so much that, as Edward Norton’s character narrated in 1999’s Fight Club, we’ve all been “slaves to the IKEA nesting instinct” at one time or another.
Admit it, you own the BILLY shelving system or know someone who does.
But as news surfaced this past spring of racial discrimination complaints, a union-busting battle royale, and exceedingly high turnover rates in disgruntled employees at its Danville, Virginia plant, socially responsible consumers are faced yet again with a nagging moral conundrum: in a culture where bargains are a dime a dozen, how does one resolve the human cost?
In Sweden, IKEA’s factory workers are unionized thus paid $19 per hour with five weeks of paid vacation every year. There, mandatory government supported social programs date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, including free and equal access to healthcare and guaranteed pensions for the elderly. Sure, Swedes are taxed for it at an extraordinary rate (up to 60%), but they’re amongst the happiest societies in the world. As political scientist at Stockholm’s Södertörn University College, Nicholas Aylott, told the Guardian, “Swedes are very attached to the idea of the state as the People’s Home. Everyone in society is under the same roof, everyone will be protected.”
In Danville, Virginia, meanwhile, it’s an altogether different narrative. Factory workers are not unionized. They’re paid $8 an hour and are often forced to work mandatory overtime – reportedly being told on a Friday night that they’re expected to work the entire weekend. If they don’t – or can’t – they’re faced with disciplinary action.
Safety-wise, conditions in the Virginia plant are just as sketchy. Over a 30-month period, workers suffered more than 1,536 days of lost work due to accidents on the job.
Wait a minute. Has the United States of America – with its lower taxes and comparative lack of societal benefits and worker’s rights – become IKEA’s sweatshop?
Huh, suddenly that Ektorp loveseat isn’t looking so cozy.
Since going public, Danville workers have been informed they will no longer be forced to work mandatory overtime. Nevertheless, efforts to unionize have been continually squashed by IKEA and the law firm of Jackson Lewis Associates, who are infamous for their rabid anti-union counsel and litigation.
Change.org is circulating a petition pressuring the company to rethink its union position here in the United States. At last count, more than 83,000 people had submitted their signatures, and you can, too.
Petitions and klagande aside, the question for consumers remains: IKEA is cheap, sort-of-convenient, cute and easy. But so is fast fashion and, for that matter, fast food. Sorry bargain shoppers, like a double bacon cheeseburger wrapped in Perfluoroalkyl served through a drive-thru window, McFurnishing your home just ain’t lagom.