By Juan O. Tamayo, McClatchy Newspapers –
MIAMI — The six Cuban-Americans in the Congress on Tuesday demanded “an urgent meeting” with the head of Ikea in North America to discuss whether the company used Cuban prison labor to make some of its furniture in the 1980s.
“It is the responsibility of every company to ensure that its products and their respective components are derived from responsible labor practices,” the two senators and four House members wrote in a letter to Mike Ward, head of Ikea North America.
“They certainly should not derive from the dark prisons of authoritarian regimes that repress their own populations, including the denial of basic workers’ rights.”
It was signed by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., as well as South Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera and New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires.
“We want to know the exact circumstances that led Ikea to apparently enter into an accord with the Castro dictatorship to produce some of its furniture in Cuba,” said a statement issued by Ros-Lehtinen’s office.
“These are serious allegations and they have caused much consternation in our communities, and rightly so,” the statement added.
“The Castro brothers have misgoverned Cuba for more than half a century putting in place a tyrannical regime that harasses, beats, jails, exiles and kills anyone who stands in their way.
“Multinational corporations have a moral obligation to assure their businesses are not violating human rights.”
The four-paragraph letter was sent to Ward at Ikea North America’s headquarters in Conshohocken, Pa.
Spokeswoman Mona Liss said a senior official at Ikea headquarters in Sweden will meet with the Congress members “very quickly.”
The authoritative German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported last week that Ikea had contracted for Cuban prisoners to build 45,000 tables and 4,000 sofa groupings in September of 1987.
German reporters found the information while reviewing archives of the former East Germany because officials of its communist government had facilitated the deal with Cuba. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and East Germany ceased to exist the next year.
Ikea already has been investigating reports last fall that some of its buyers had signed deals to have prisoners in East Germany build furniture for the company in the 1970s and 1980s.
Liss told El Nuevo Herald in an email last week that Ikea would now widen that probe to include the Cuba allegations.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” she said.
The German newspaper reported that documents found in East German archives showed that officials of that government had signed a deal with a Cuban man identified as Lt. Enrique Sanchez, in charge of EMIAT, a Cuban government enterprise that used prison labor to manufacture furniture.
Liss acknowledged last week that Ikea had agreements of a limited nature with Cuba but said the firm has not had any long-term business relationships with any Cuban manufacturer.
“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.
The German newspaper reported that the first sofas made in Cuba had quality problems and that East German officials then traveled to Cuba to try to fix the problem.
It is not known how many sofas and tables, if any, were eventually delivered to Ikea.