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East German prison labour claims spread
A former Stasi prison cell. Photo: DPA

East German prison labour claims spread

Published: 04 May 2012 17:27 GMT+02:00
Updated: 04 May 2012 17:27 GMT+02:00

East German political prisoners were not only making furniture for Ikea but also sewing bedclothes for West German companies such as Quelle and Neckermann, according to new claims in Friday's Handelsblatt newspaper.

Former prisoner Tatjyana Sterneberg told the paper she was forced to make bedclothes for two years while in the notorious Hoheneck women’s prison in the mid-1970s.

“It was terrible,” she said. “In 1974 there were more than 1,600 women in a prison designed for 650 prisoners. My cell was 30 square metres – and had 24 sleeping places. There were three taps and just one toilet.”

She said she had contacted Quelle years ago asking for an apology, but had not received an answer.

“I think it is outrageous that these western companies enriched themselves on the backs of political prisoners in East Germany. That is a scandal,” she said.

Ikea chiefs are working through documents they have requested from the East German secret police archives, which reportedly show that East German prisoners were put to work making things for the home furnishings giant.

While they do so, Dieter Ott has told the Handelsblatt he would be pushing for compensation for the work he did for the company while a prisoner.

“Ikea should be honest and say how many forced workers were used," he told the paper. "If the company got commercial advantage from this arrangement, then one should also be talking about compensation.”

He was jailed in 1986 for applying to leave East Germany, desperate to fulfil a wanderlust.

“Had I known that the cupboard door hinges, door handles and chair casters we were making were destined for Ikea, I would probably have thought it was wonderful. I absolutely wanted to go to the west – working for a western company would have excited me. But no-one told us.”

He said the conditions under which he and the other prisoners worked for Mewa, a state-owned firm, were inhumane.

“The bus which took us to the Ikea work had bars on the windows. We drove through a big metal gate and as soon as we were in the building, there was only neon light. No window, no sunshine.” He said he did not receive any earnings.

Claims were made this week that Cuban political prisoners were also used to make Ikea products during the 1980s after a Swedish television programme aired the claims about East Germans.

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Your comments about this article

18:14 May 4, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
Nothing new here. How many well known German companies were using forced labour during the Nazi era. Even today they scour the world for cheap labour and whilst it may not be so easy at the moment to find free labour like they would like they have come up with the idea of internships to compensate themselves with that loss. Not to mention the falling salaries in real terms for the working and middle classes. Has it ever been any other way during the last hundred years with German government after German government being in cohoots with big German firms.

Look back over the years and make a list of all the top companies who have been caught out but are still in operation today after only receiving a slap on the wrist at most. I won't mention any of them myself for fear of libel. Libel being the course of action they use to stiffle freedom of speech when it does not suit themselves.
20:19 May 6, 2012 by MeinSchwanz
You do realize, that it is the GOVERNMENT that is enslaving its people, and forcing them to work for almost nothing. Whatever money is earned by these workers, does not go to the workers, it goes to the Greedy GOVERNMENT! Same thing happens in the USA, Workers make license plates or make sales calls for pennies a day. The Government picks up the profit.

Think of forced prostitution... WHo Worse? Or MOST guilty?? The person who imprisons another, takes away their freedom to earn, and forces them to provide sexual services for little or no money? Or the person who has sex with that prostitute? Surely, neither is morally just, however, it is clear that one is FAR WORSE than the other. But most of you have your heads so far up you collectivist asses, that you can't see things for what they are anyway. And in your opinion a morally corrupt John is the worst thing on the face of the planet.
23:01 May 6, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
Without supply there would be no demand and without demand there would be no need for supply. All in all, the governments that supply are as bad as the companies that exploit this human resource. Companies have no morals when it comes to making profit and until the controlling minds of these companies who are responsible for exploitation such as this are made account for themselves then governments will continue to do this.
11:00 May 7, 2012 by HeidiD
Not only prison inmates had to perform forced labor. And indeed, the issue of forced labor is not one of former East Germany exclusively.

Former institutionalized children have performed forced labor for years. In the Federal Republic of Germany!

Already pre-school children were forced to work for their own bed and food, they forced them into doing this by deprivation of food and/or sleep, by beatings and by psychological terror. Childred slaved in hot mangles and large laundry facilities, in places owned by the orphanages, boarding schools or reformatories, they were ¦quot;loaned" to local farmers as well as brought to work companies (like Ikea f.e.)

The names of the companies that these children and adolesence worked for for a pittance (not even that was paid to them, however!), are known. Most large, well-known names of today are among them!

However: No one speaks of compensation in this particular context! All, the former children ­ forced to labor, tortured, violated ­ can hope for today in Germany is a low level compensation for the pension, now that they are old and many of them living in misery and poverty.

No robbed wages, no compensation for hunger, sleep deprivation, torture, rapes and humiliations...

The former prison inmates have a right to get compensated ­ no doubt!

And no doubt, the former children in institutional care have the same right!

So: Return a bit of our dignity, let us have at least some quality of life now that we are old!

Compensate us!

A survivor of Germany's children's hells
14:00 May 7, 2012 by langolier
So I am not convinced that we have proved that Quelle and Ikea knew of the conditions or the workers making the products were prisoners. I would caution before we embark on a witch hunt to get as much facts and information as possible. We know how the DDR operated. I have no doubt that Ikea was getting a deal by using DDR labor but it would make sense that a communist country could produce cheaper goods because the profits would not have to be as high to pay massivly inflated CEO's. Its possible the DDR leadership played upon this and used prison labor to pay for their fancy retreat houses in the mountians or to secure hard currency to buy things not produced in the DDR.
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