European furniture giants buy products made in Belarusian labor camps: report – POLITICO

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European furniture giants buy products made in Belarusian labor camps: report - POLITICO
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Some of Europe’s largest furniture companies continue to source products from Belarus despite sanctions imposed on the country following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and many of these products are made using forced labor, according to a report published Friday by the London-based NGO Earthsight.

Belarus’ ties to Russia mean it is subject to sanctions, which include a ban on timber imports (the sale of timber plays a major role in Belarus’ economy and the country’s forests belong to the State).

In the years before the war, imports of wood and furniture to the EU increased dramatically, despite the brutal crackdown on the opposition by strong leader Alexander Lukashenko after a fraudulent presidential election in 2020. Germany to it alone increased its imports from almost 200 million euros in 2020 to almost 300 million euros a year later.

Furniture imports from Belarus were not initially included in the EU sanctions package, but in April the bloc said all EU companies must end such imports. However, according to Earthsight, not all European companies have done so.

Last week it was reported that the world’s largest furniture company, Ikea, was not only buying some of its furniture from Belarus until June this year, but that some products were made by forced labor in prisons. Belarusians. Ikea has since stopped sourcing products from Belarus.

But Earthsight says other furniture companies still use Belarusian wood, including Austrian XXXLutz and its subsidiary POCO, German Porta Möbel/Möbel Boss, Hoffner and Roller, and French BUT. None of these companies manufacture products in Belarus, but they buy from companies that do, according to the survey.

The report says that the German company Polipol, which achieved a turnover of 500 million euros in 2021 and employs some 8,500 people, is one of the biggest buyers of Belarusian wood products. Polipol leases space and sources particleboard from the state-owned Ivatsevichdrev, which uses forced labor in the penal colonies, according to the survey.

Polipol’s furniture is sold by hundreds of retailers across Europe, including XXXLutz, the continent’s second largest furniture company by turnover and with more stores than Ikea.

On April 25, Polipol’s managing director, Marc Greve, told a German industry magazine that while “we condemn this terrible war”, his company “continues to produce furniture in Belarus”.

Polipol did not respond to a request for comment.

Belarusian companies also export directly to the European market. FanDOK is based in Bobruisk and has ties to the local prison, according to the investigation. Ales Bialiatski, the Belarusian human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in October, was subjected to forced labor and ill-treatment at Penal Colony No. 2 in Bobruisk.

Other political prisoners told Earthsight that forced labor is part of prison life in Belarus. “The refusal to work was a violation,” a political prisoner told Earthsight. If you refused, you would be beaten and “spend a few days in a punishment cell”.

In September, the FanDOK boss said he was increasing his furniture exports to Germany: “Last year, we produced 5-6 models of solid wood furniture for the German market. Now we have 21.” While the company had only one German customer for its furniture, it now has three, he added.

Earthsight has called on the EU to urgently extend sanctions to cover wooden furniture, pulp and paper from Belarus. “This should be justified not only by the complicity of Belarus in the conflict, but also by the abuses of the Lukashenko regime that existed before,” the NGO said in a statement.

“Lukashenko’s regime adopted the worst traditions of Stalinism. They force prisoners to work hard for free, use them as free labour, including political prisoners,” Franak Viačorka, senior adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told POLITICO.

“Many have been sentenced to years of hard labor for participating in marches, for supporting Ukraine or criticizing Lukashenko,” he added. “We encourage all Western companies to cease all collaboration with the regime, with public companies, with all institutions linked to the government.”

XXXLutz said he does not buy his wares directly but through a company called GIGA International, based in Germany. GIGA told Earthsight that the allegations “will be investigated immediately by us”. They added that they ended all cooperation with direct suppliers in Belarus in February this year and asked their indirect suppliers Polipol and Bega for a detailed statement on the matter.

None of the other companies mentioned responded to requests for comment.

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