London-based environmental group Earthsight alleges that some of Europe’s largest furniture retail chains are linked to the forced labour and torture of political prisoners in Belarus, as well as the destruction of some of Europe’s last primeval forests.
Earthsight's new report, Rubber-stamping Repression, describes how sales of this "tainted furniture" across Europe have for years benefitted the country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, while the continuing trade aids Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in which Belarus is complicit.
Earthsight says its investigation connected the use of forced prison labour to furniture sold at almost every major furniture retail chain in Europe, including IKEA, BUT and XXXLutz, and that IKEA furniture linked to the process has also been sold in the US.
"Belarus’ prison service is the country’s largest timber company, using the forced labour of 8000 inmates to harvest trees and process them into a wide range of wood products, including furniture, for export," states Earthsight.
"Flawed green labels the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and PEFC approved this activity while European governments refused for years to implement sanctions which could end the scandalous trade, and are now even breaking their own laws in allowing it to continue.
"Exports are fed in part by logging taking place within Belarus’ National Parks, which are under the direct control of the Presidential Property Management Directorate (PPMD), Lukashenko’s private slush fund. The PPMD was until recently being run by Lukashenko’s right-hand man, Viktor Sheiman, long accused by the EU of arranging the ‘disappearance’ of the President’s political opponents."
Earthsight says it uncovered documents revealing that over one million cubic metres of logs are being cut in these protected areas each year, leading to deforestation of the Belarusian portion of the Bialowieza Forest.
Earthsight director Sam Lawson says: “European consumers will be horrified to learn that their purchases of sofas and other furniture may be linked to the torture of political prisoners and destruction of primeval forests, while also serving to bankroll one of warmonger Putin’s closest allies.
“The EU, UK and US governments must act urgently to address this scandal by expanding existing sanctions on Belarus, improving enforcement of existing laws banning imports of wood sourced illegally, and passing additional legislation forcing companies to conduct due diligence to prevent human rights and environmental abuses throughout their supply chains.”
Earthsight says that past and current political prisoners it interviewed testified to torture and maltreatment, compulsory work in woodshops and terrible working conditions.
"One of the biggest prisons involved in this trade is the notorious Bobruisk Penal Colony No 2, where former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov was imprisoned and tortured after protesting the rigged re-election of President Lukashenko in 2010," states Earthsight. "Ales Bialiatski, the imprisoned Belarusian human rights activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2022, was also once held and subjected to forced labour and maltreatment there.
"Another is Penal Colony No 5, situated 300km due west of Bobruisk, in the small city of Ivatsevichy. Prisoners and multiple sources inside government told Earthsight that the prisons are closely connected to two large state-owned timber mills, providing them with semi-processed wood, raw materials and cheap forced labour. Sources and other documentation uncovered show that these state-owned timber mills supply the big European furniture retailers, either directly or indirectly."
Sam continues: “Earthsight is calling for urgent reform of green labels FSC and PEFC, which greenwashed both the PPMD forests and the prisons as ‘sustainable’ sources of wood for western markets. Some of the prisons had their certificates issued in late 2020 despite the widespread imprisonment and torture of pro-democracy protestors in Belarus having already made worldwide headlines.”
Earthsight notes that IKEA voluntarily halted all purchases from Belarus or use of Belarusian timber in March 2022. Following a viral campaign led by Ukrainian activists demanding formal sanctions on wood, and boycotts by PEFC and FSC, the EU also banned imports of timber from Belarus, and FSC and PEFC pulled all their certificates. However, it adds, imports of furniture are not yet subject to sanctions, and timber is also still free to enter the UK and US. European firms continue to import millions of euros' worth of Belarusian wood furniture and components each week, states Earthsight.
"The EU Timber Regulation demands importers conduct due diligence to ensure their wood product purchases were legally sourced," states Earthsight. "In April, the European Commission announced that compliance with this law with regard to Belarus was now ‘impossible’, and that EU firms must halt imports, regardless of whether they were covered by sanctions.
"Earthsight found 20 different EU member states have continued to register imports of Belarusian wood furniture since the April announcement, with the largest volumes destined for Poland, Lithuania, Germany and France."
Since the report was published, XXXLutz has told Politico that "it does not purchase its goods directly but through a company called GIGA International, based in Germany", and that "GIGA told Earthsight that the allegations 'will be investigated by us immediately'", adding that they had "terminated all co-operation with direct suppliers in Belarus in February this year and had asked their indirect suppliers Polipol and Bega for a detailed statement on the issue".
IKEA quickly responded to these fresh allegations, stating: "We, at IKEA, take these reports seriously, and are concerned. We are investigating the claims. At this time, we have no evidence to substantiate the claims made in the news reports. We are clear across all markets where we are present that human rights abuses, such as forced and bonded labour, have no place in our business.
"With our long-term approach, we seek to create sustainable change for the better wherever we are present. We take our responsibility seriously to ensure we have embedded processes to identify and minimise risks through robust due diligence processes, including verification by third-party auditors.
"In June 2021, we decided to stop all new business development due to the human rights challenges in Belarus and the unpredictable environment. At the same time, we continued to investigate the next step to leave the market without risking the livelihoods of thousands of people we directly or indirectly employed in our supply chain. The war in Ukraine and the international sanctions accelerated these plans. In June 2022, IKEA decided to leave the market and terminate contracts with our suppliers.
"While present in Belarus, we carried out regular audits according to our supplier code of conduct IWAY, in combination with the mapping of our supply chain to secure compliance with our requirements. IWAY is mandatory for all suppliers and service providers that work with IKEA and sets clear requirements and ways of working on environmental, social, and working conditions. No remarkable deviations were found during the IWAY audits at the suppliers. While no system is a guarantee against all risks, should we have received indications of misconduct, we would have immediately investigated and acted on them. We always strive to live up to our values and the expectations of those in our supply chain."
An expose and petition led by the environmental group saw IKEA commit to "dramatically expanding its use of recycled wood" in January 2021.
The FSC responded: "There have been some recent media reports and allegations connecting FSC with violations of workers’ rights inside prisons in Belarus, despite the termination of all FSC certificates of penal colonies in Belarus in 2021 by certification bodies.
"In 2020, after the presidential elections, FSC took note of the growing concerns about the upholding of social rights in Belarus, especially with respect to the core conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) which address essential workers’ rights. The relevant safeguards of the ILO core conventions are an essential component of FSC’s certification system, both for the FSC forest management standards and, since September 2021, also for chain of custody certificate holders.
"After the 2020 elections, Assurance Services International (ASI) also expressed concerns about evaluations against relevant FSC safeguards and undertook an independent investigation to explore further. Following this investigation, on 4th March 2022, ASI announced its inability to credibly assess conformance with certain FSC social requirements based on ILO core conventions due to unacceptable risks to the safety or livelihood of individuals involved in FSC certification.
"Furthermore, with most independent environmental NGOs being liquidated in the country, FSC was unable to bring the various interests to the table to develop and promote responsible forest management. FSC works in a stakeholder-driven fashion, bringing together the environmental, social and economic interests. This is a fundamental principle for FSC to function and ensure that all voices are heard.
"Therefore, all certificates in Belarus were terminated in April 2022.
"Protecting human and workers’ rights is at the core of our principles and criteria, and it is in our purpose to allow all people to have equal conditions for realising their full human rights and for contributing to, and benefiting from, economic, social, cultural and political development."