What could be more boring, more benign and family-friendly than Ikea?

You’d be surprised…

News outlets are now reporting that the furniture giant’s offices in France and Germany (along with news outlets) have been receiving letters threatening to blow up or burn down Ikea stores and warehouses if they don’t meet a list of demands including a multi-million dollar ransom, a wage increase for its workers and to start making “significant” contributions to charity. The letters were signed “Franck Steel” and “Robin Wood”, though they’re apparently unconnected with the similarly-named environmental groups who recently targetted Ikea over their use of rainforest wood.

I suspect right about now you’re wondering why Ikea’s charitable donations are worth the time of any self-respecting terrorist. I might be wondering that too if it weren’t for the reason I was searching the web for “Ikea” and “charity” on this fine evening. I recently got an email responding to a couple years-old posts where I brought up some unsavoury allegations about the past of Ikea’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, regarding his links to the Nazi occupation of Sweden (later followed by Soviet prison-labour revelations). The email came from a young woman who’d made a short video about Ikea’s brilliant (if somewhat disingenuous) business model: on paper, it’s a “non-profit”.

See the video

Ikea is many things. It’s the world’s largest furniture retailer, the third largest purchaser of wood, and possibly the world’s largest charity. Ikea is owned by the INGKA foundation, also started by Kamprad, unofficially known as the world’s largest charitable organization (with ~$36 billion in holdings), though very little of that (a few thousandths each year) actually gets donated. The stated purpose? “To promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design” – hardly a dire humanitarian emergency. This status allows the corporation to pay next to nothing in taxes on their billions in profits, and there’s something of a consensus in the financial world that it’s all little more than an elaborate tax-dodging ownership scheme under the control of Kamprad, one of the richest people on earth.

This charity’s generosity is being tested at the moment in Richmond, BC, where workers at one of the country’s two unionized Ikea outlets have been on strike for more than two weeks over wage demands. As far as labour relations, the company doesn’t have the best record, having been in trouble in the past for hiring anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis to fight an organizing drive at a factory in Danville, Virginia, illegally accessing police records to check if employees were “anti-globalists” or “eco-terrorists” and of course employing prison labour behind the old Iron Curtain.

Boring? Benign? Hardly. Who knew bad furniture could cause so much controversy? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what’s hiding behind other suburban big-box store-fronts in the area. I could tell you that the world’s number one and two wood purchasers also have local outlets at least as close as the Plains Rd. Ikea, and nine of the fifteen big chains who’ve refused to sign onto the new Bangladesh fire safety accords are operating in our region. Then there’s Walmart and the Hudsons’s Bay Company, which could each fill many posts of their own. Behind the drywall and display stands, these retail chains are some of the most powerful institutions on the planet, so I suppose it isn’t all that surprising to find skeletons in their closets or modern-day Robin Hoods at their doorstep.

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