"We take these allegations very seriously" ... Mona Liss, Ikea spokeswoman in the US. Photo: Jon Reid
MIAMI: A report that the Swedish furniture company Ikea employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the 1980s has provoked a strong reaction among Miami exiles.
The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has reported that in September 1987 Cuban authorities negotiated for 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children's tables and an unspecified number of sofas to be built for Ikea.
The newspaper said German reporters found the information while reviewing archives of the Cold War era and that East German officials facilitated the deal with Cuba. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, was officially abolished in 1990.
It was reported last year that the furniture company had used ''slave labour'' in East Germany in a factory in Waldheim. At the time, Ikea issued a statement saying it had no knowledge of the use of prison labour, but was sorry if it had occurred.
Ikea subsequently started an investigation into purchasing practices and possible agreements to have furniture built by prisoners in the German Democratic Republic in the 1970s and 1980s, said Mona Liss, Ikea spokeswoman in the US.
Ms Liss emailed El Nuevo Herald that the company would now widen the probe.
''We take these allegations very seriously,'' she said.
According to information in the archives, East German officials met Lieutenant Enrique Sanchez, identified as the person in charge of a Cuban company known as Emiat, which supplied patio furniture to diplomatic houses and high-ranking Cuban officials.
They discussed furniture to be built ''in prison facilities of the Ministry of Interior''.
Especially incensed about the allegations were former political prisoners in Miami.
''Cuba never misses the opportunity of seeking strong foreign currency to grease the regime's repressive machinery,'' said Luis Gonzalez Infante, a prisoner for 16 years and president of the organisation Cuban Historical Political Penitentiary.
Ms Liss acknowledged Ikea had agreements of a limited nature with Cuba but said the Swedish firm has not had any long-term business relationships with any Cuban provider.
''As far as we know, there have only been occasional test purchases of a limited amount of products from Cuban suppliers in the late '80s,'' she said.
There are indications that Ikea considered the quality of Cuban furniture unacceptable. In early 1988, the first delivery of sofas was cancelled.
East German officials had travelled to Cuba in an effort to try to fix the quality problem, but it is not known when the contract ceased.
The Miami Herald