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Ikea's U.S. factory churns out unhappy workers

A union-organizing battle hangs over the Ikea plant in Virginia. Workers complain of eliminated raises, a frenzied pace, mandatory overtime and racial discrimination.

April 10, 2011|By Nathaniel Popper, Los Angeles Times

The facility looks like a series of interlocking, windowless white boxes — as neat as an Ikea store — with a blue-and-yellow Swedish flag flying out front. Employees inside produce Expedit bookshelves, which start at $69.99 in Ikea stores, and Lack coffee tables, which retail for as little as $19.99.

Low prices have helped Ikea weather the economic downturn. The company made 2.7 billion euros in profit last year, up 6.1% from 2009, according to its most recent financial statements.

Still, last fall, Swedwood eliminated regularly scheduled raises and made cuts to some pay packages in Danville. Starting pay in the packing department, for example, was reduced to $8 an hour from $9.75. Steen said the changes were made to free up more money to pay incentive bonuses to top performers.

The median hourly wage in the Danville area is $15.48, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

Current and former plant employees said they resented the unpredictable work hours and high-pressure atmosphere. The plant assesses penalty points for violations of work rules; workers who accumulate nine of them can be fired.

"It's the most strict place I have ever worked," said Janis Wilborne, 63, who worked at the plant for two years and quit last year.

Six African American employees have filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that black workers at Swedwood's U.S. factory are assigned to the lowest-paying departments and to the least desirable third shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

"If we put in for a better job, we wouldn't get it — it would always go to a white person," said Jackie Maubin, who worked the night shift in the packing department until last year, when she was fired on her birthday.

Swedwood has been trying to settle four of the discrimination complaints through mediation. The company initially offered Maubin $1,000. She settled for $2,000. She said she needed the money to keep her car from being repossessed.

Global competition has motivated all manner of companies to seek out low-cost sources of production, said Ellen Ruppel Shell, the author of the book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture." Ikea is no exception. What's different, she said, is that the company has done such a good job of burnishing its own corporate image.

"There's a mythology around the company," Shell said. "That's why these kinds of revelations surprise a lot of folks."

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