BUSINESS

Union says IKEA pays low wages, tolerates unsafe conditions

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The union attempting to represent workers at IKEA's only U.S. plant is challenging the Swedish furniture giant's vaunted corporate ethos, accusing the retailer of paying its American workers low wages and tolerating unsafe working conditions.

(Photo: Courtesy EpSos.de via Flickr)

Approximately 320 workers at IKEA's Swedwood Danville plant will vote Wednesday whether to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The machinists union has put IKEA's reputation as a labor- and environment-friendly Swedish employer at the forefront of its organizing drive as it attempts to organize workers at the company's subsidiary, Swedwood. They assemble the sleek, low-cost bookshelves and coffee tables that the big-box retailer sells in its distinctive, cheery, blue-and-yellow stores.

IKEA's corporate conduct is guided by its so-called IWAY Standard, which outlines environmental, social and working rules - an 18-page document governing everything from drinking water supplied to workers to lighting levels to a ban on child labor. The company says the standards follow a directive that "the IKEA business shall have an overall positive impact on people and the environment."

Many of the company's high corporate standards stop at the U.S. border, the machinists' lead organizer said. The union said workers are grossly underpaid compared to their Swedish counterparts, suffer high injury rates, are forced to work overtime, and demoted or fired for expressing union sympathies.

The IWAY standards say overtime must be voluntary and ban employers from preventing workers from associating freely and collective bargaining. They also require workers be protected from "exposure to severe safety hazards."

"You should not be able to reap the economic benefits of an image if that image is not true," said Bill Street, director of the woodworkers department of the machinists international. "When you walk into an IKEA store, you're walking into a little bit of Sweden."

The Associated Press was not able to talk directly with workers involved with Street in organizing the Danville plant. He said workers feared retaliation.

An IKEA spokeswoman denied the union allegations that the Virginia plant operates in conflict with IKEA's principles, saying the Danville operation has consistently measured up to its own internal and third-party audits.

"Swedwood Danville operates according to the same principles as all Swedwood plants," Ingrid Steen said in an e-mail.

Steen also said IKEA will honor the union vote. "Swedwood respects the right of co-workers to join, form or not to join a co-worker association of their choice," she wrote.

IKEA's selection of Danville for its first U.S. factory came with $12 million in incentive grants and the goal of ultimately hiring 780 people in Southside Virginia near the North Carolina line. The region has one of the bleakest economic landscapes in a state that traditionally has an unemployment rate a couple notches below the national rate.

The last capital of the Confederacy, the city of approximately 43,000 has struggled as tobacco and textiles declined. The jobless rate has hovered around 10 percent in recent years.

IKEA, which has 26 Swedwood plants in Europe and saw profits rise 6 percent in 2010, was welcomed by accolades from the Capitol in Richmond to local economic officials, none of whom would publicly discuss the union drive with the AP.

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