Ikea’s flexible labor policies create hostile and intimidating workplace

The National Association of Manufacturers recently laid out a strategy for reviving manufacturing in the US. It calls for lowering business taxes, reducing environmental, safety, and work regulations, and creating a dynamic labor market. If you’re wondering what a dynamic labor market looks like, there’s a good example at the Swedwood furniture plant in Danville, Virginia. Swedwood is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ikea, the Swedish retail furniture giant.

According to NAM one feature of a dynamic labor market is the ability of companies to design flexible work schedules and benefit arrangements. Recently, Swedwood changed its workers’ vacation benefit. Workers are still entitled to 12 vacation days a year, but the company with no input from workers will decide when they can take eight of the days.

Swedwood, or more accurately Ikea, also has plenty of flexibility in setting work schedules. “They routinely force workers to change shifts and to work overtime with no notice,” said Bill Street of the IAM, which is conducting an organizing campaign at Ikea’s Danville plant.

Forced overtime and an erratic schedule can be hard on family life. The Los Angeles Times reports that Kylette Duncan quit her job at the Ikea Danville plant because of the company’s forced overtime and work schedule policy. “I need the money as bad as anyone, but I also need a life,” Duncan told the Times. Duncan had to cancel medical appointments for her ill husband because on several occasions the company told her at the last-minute she had to work overtime.

There’s also a racist tinge to Ikea’s flexible scheduling policy. “(Ikea) bases employment decisions on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, such as skills, experience and competence,” said Ingrid Steén, information manager for Swedwood Group in Sweden, in an email to the Times. But  six former African-American workers have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Ikea charging among other things that African-Americans make up a disproportionate share of the plant’s most undesirable late-night shift, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m, and the lowest paid departments like shipping. 

Among Ikea’s dynamic and flexible labor policies is its ability to fire workers without cause. Jeffery Dale Eanes told the Lynchburg News and Advance that even though he was hired to program the plant’s computerized machine tools, he often worked outside his job description and, while doing so,  suffered a herniated disk. He asked the company if he could work at his programmer’s job instead of doing the kind of heavy work that caused his back injury. Several weeks later, the company called at home and told him not to come to work anymore. 

In another demonstration of its flexible labor policies, Ikea told its Danville workers that they would not be receiving promised pay raises, even though the company recorded profits of 2 billion euros in 2010. Ikea also reduced the starting rate for some Danville jobs from $9.25 per hour to $8 per hour (The minimum pay rate for Ikea’s Swedish workers is $19 per hour).

Ikea also has problems maintaining a safe work environment. Last summer, the IAM reported that Ikea in Danville “may be the most dangerous plant in the wood furniture industry” with injury rates well above the national average. A subsequent investigation by the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration resulted in fines for numerous safety violations.

Ikea’s abuses have caused some workers to consider organizing a union, and the IAM has been there to help them. But Ikea won’t let the union into the plant to talk to workers and won’t allow union organizers to pass out union information at the plant gates, a practice that violates Ikea’s own stated principles of allowing workers to form unions when they want to. Ikea also hired  Jackson Lewis, a union avoidance law firm, to advise it regarding the organizing drive.

Bill Street of the IAM said that the organizing drive is going well considering the circumstances. “The workplace is phenomenally hostile and intimidating, (and) they have a ruthless termination policy that they apply arbitrarily,” Street said. Despite these obstacle, the IAM has collected union authorization cards from 49 percent of Ikea Danville workers.

Ikea came to Danville in 2008, promising 740 new jobs for an area of the state whose two main industries, textile and tobacco, were in decline. In return for the promise of new jobs, Ikea received $12 million in local and state incentives. Three years after opening shop, the plant employs 335 workers, and as the Los Angeles Times reports, relies on temporary agencies to fill about one-third of its positions.

Ikea  has a reputation for social and environmental responsibility but clearly has no qualms about exaggerating the economic impact that its presence will have on a local economy in order receive a government handout or treating its workers like cogs in a profit generating machine.

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