Some of Europe’s biggest furniture companies continue to buy products from Belarus despite sanctions imposed on the country in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and many of those products are made using forced labor, according to a report out Friday by London-based NGO Earthsight.
Belarus’ ties to Russia mean that it is subject to sanctions, which include a ban on imports of timber (the sale of wood plays a major role in Belarus’ economy and the country’s forests are state-owned).
In the years before the war, imports of timber and furniture to the EU increased significantly, despite strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on the opposition after a fraudulent presidential election in 2020. Germany alone ramped up its imports from almost €200 million in 2020 to almost €300 million a year later.
Furniture imports from Belarus were not initially included in the EU sanctions package but in April, the bloc stated that all EU companies must halt such imports. However, according to Earthsight, not all European companies did so.
Last week it was reported that the world’s biggest furniture company, Ikea, was not only sourcing some of its furniture from Belarus until June this year, but that some products were made using forced labor in Belarusian jails. Ikea has since stopped sourcing products from Belarus.
But Earthsight says other furniture companies are still using Belarusian timber — including Austria’s XXXLutz and its subsidiary POCO, Germany’s Porta Möbel/Möbel Boss, Hoffner and Roller, and France’s BUT. None of these companies make products in Belarus but they buy from companies that do, according to the investigation.
The report says German company Polipol, which had a turnover of €500 million in 2021 and employs some 8,500 people, is one of the biggest buyers of Belarusian timber products. Polipol rents space and sources chipboard from state-owned Ivatsevichdrev, which uses forced labor in penal colonies, according to the investigation.
On April 25, Polipol’s Managing Director Marc Greve told a German industry magazine that while “we condemn this terrible war,” his company is “continuing to produce furniture in Belarus.”
Polipol did not respond to a request for comment.
Belarusian companies also directly export to the European market. FanDOK is based in Bobruisk and has links to the local prison, according to the investigation. Ales Bialiatski, the Belarusian human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October was subjected to forced labor and ill-treatment at Bobruisk Penal Colony No2.
Other political prisoners told Earthsight that forced labor is part of life in jail n Belarus. “Refusal to work was a violation,” one political prisoner told Earthsight. If you refused you would be beaten and “spend a couple of days in a punishment cell.”
In September, FanDOK’s boss said it was ramping up 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 used to have only one German customer for its furniture, it now has three, he added.
Earthsight called on the EU to urgently expand the sanctions to cover wood furniture, pulp and paper from Belarus. “This should be justified based not only on Belarus’s complicity in the conflict, but on the abuses by the Lukashenko regime which existed before that,” 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 labor, including political prisoners,” Franak Viačorka, chief adviser to Belarus’ opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told POLITICO.
“Many were sentenced to years of forced labor for participating in marches, for supporting Ukraine or criticizing Lukashenko,” he added. “We encourage all the Western companies to stop any collaboration with the regime, with state companies, with any institutions related to the government.”
XXXLutz said it does not purchase its goods directly but through a company called GIGA International, based in Germany. GIGA told Earthsight that the allegations “will be investigated by us immediately.” They added that they had terminated all cooperation 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.
None of the other companies mentioned responded to requests for comment.