Ikea comes to the U.S. – for its low-cost labor?

Ikea, the popular Swedish manufacturer of inexpensive knock-down home furnishings has a reputation in its own country as a fair employer that pays good wages and embraces its unionized workforce.

But when it came to America in 2006 to open its first manufacturing facility here (it has roughly 40 U.S. retail locations, Ikea’s Swedwood manufacturing subsidiary seems to have done things differently.

While Ikea’s Swedish workers are largely unionized and start at $19 an hour, its U.S. manufacturing workers start at $8 an hour, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

And while the Swedish government mandates five weeks of paid vacation a year, employees at Ikea’s U.S. manufacturing facility get 12 days – only four of which the employee is allowed to select him/herself.

Further, according to Fredericksburg.com (the website affiliated with the The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, VA), about a third of the plant’s 335 employees were hired as temps – at a lower starting wage and no benefits.

The biggest grievance of employees seems to have centered around mandatory overtime – with workers often finding out just minutes before the end of one shift that they would have to work the next or face disciplinary action, published reports indicate.

By spring 2011, with the plant facing a serious unionization effort, Swedwood, hired a prominent union-beating law firm and conducted an audit of the employees’ complaints.

According to a statement published by Ikea itself, the audit revealed “one issue regarding excessive use of overtime. Although the use of overtime at Danville is within legal parameters, it does not live up to the high demands of [IKEA].” Otherwise, the statement offered, “The audit team found the Danville factory to be modern and well functioning.”

Employees apparently were less than satisfied. In July 2011, they voted 221-69 in favor of unionizing under the AFL-CIO.

As a side note, Virginia is one of 22 so-called Right to Work states – those with laws that that allow employees of unionized companies to opt out of union membership. Such laws are often described as Right to Work For Less – and just as often credited with contributing to the fast economic growth of the Southeast and Sunbelt in the ’90s and ’00s.