More on IKEA: Mistaking What Is Legal with What Is Ethical

A few years back, Dick Cavett made the following observation about the misuse of the phrase "presumption of innocence":

Cast your mind back about a dozen years to Tonya Harding. For the newly born, she was the young skater who hired a goon acquaintance to lurch out of the shadows and whack rival skater Nancy Kerrigan in the leg. The attack effectively put Nancy out of commission and delivered to sportsmanship a black eye the size of Cleveland.

Despite all this, gritty Tonya's fanatical admirers remained loyal. On the TV news one of these ardent supporters -- in this case an adenoidal female teen -- gushed into a newslady's mike something like, "It's rilly awful. The papers and like everybody are rilly forgetteen about like Tonya's Constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty. It's the, like, cornerstone of our democracy." (I have omitted a few "likes.")

In New York's most recent case of law officers pumping a half gross of lead into an unarmed citizen, a prosecutor, of all people who should know better, urged press and public to remind themselves of the presumption of innocence "that governs us all."

...The P. of I. has nothing whatever to do with you and me. We can talk, write, broadcast and even put up a billboard (if so foolish) stating that the accused is the one who did it. It has to do with our system. If you find yourself accused of a crime, you do not have to prove your innocence. The burden is on the other side. The prosecution has to prove your guilt. That's about it. And it is not even a rule of law. It is a rule of evidence, relevant only to the judge and the jury.

I once heard an exasperated Dan Abrams, the MSNBC legal correspondent, state it simply and best: "I've had to say it before and I say it again. The presumption of innocence has no relevance outside the courtroom."

Point being, what is a legal form does not mean that it is also an ethical standard. Often, as many lawyers would be the first to admit, far from it.

So, when I wrote yesterday's post about IKEA's poor U.S. labor practices, I had a hunch I would get responses defending IKEA.

I've received tweets, emails and comments arguing that it's not IKEA's fault, it's due to the absence of significant worker protections. That's true (and I've argued for those before, as well as in that post), but that's not the whole story. IKEA is paying far less to U.S. workers than they do their own, even though they are making a profit (and have received U.S tax dollars to boot). Why? Because they can.

Unfortunately, that is legal. And you'll note, I didn't write, "Sic the Labor Department on them because they're breaking the law*." Instead, I asked readers to use their ethical sensibilities and decide that, until IKEA raises wages at its Danville plant to those of the surrounding area (and which, by the way, would still be lower than those in Sweden), not to buy their products.

That, too, is legal. And I would argue ethical as well.

Because, as I've written many times before, personal responsibility is not the sole purview of poor single minority women.

And as for the apologist who argued that the Swedish home company didn't know what was happening in U.S. Well, even if you believe that (because a multinational corporation would never lie. Ever), a boycott would be a great way to convince IKEA Sweden to exercise more oversight of its U.S. operations. Because somehow eight dollars an hour is happening. Once they fix the unfortunate oversight crappy labor practices, shop away!

Until then, do the right thing. It's legal.

*Unless, of course, IKEA is found guilty of racial discrimination. On that count, I'll presume they're innocent until proven guilty....

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I think you may have forgotten to close a strikethrough.

By Dan Geiser (not verified) on 24 Apr 2011 #permalink

When we in the EU have clamored for boycotting a company headquartered in the US for unethical labor practices in Africa or Asia, the response has always been swift and clear: don't confuse the market economy with your high-faluting ethical principles.

Now that the reality of market economy is being brought on to the continental US soil by a multinational not headquartered in the US, the noise is oddly different.

Remember when the labor movement was international? How about the same union for IKEA workers in Sweden recruit IKEA workers in the U.S.?

The funny thing, Pinvonen, is that boycott's are a perfectly reasonable and responsible means to deal, using the force of the market, with ethical issues.

Pirvonev, I don't remember which instances you are referring to. Could you refresh my memory?

I think a better reason to boycott IKEA is the clearly inferior product they produce. A few hundred bucks on a new sofa that will only hold up for a few years is NOT a good deal.

By hickchick (not verified) on 24 Apr 2011 #permalink

What is the effect of a boycott on workers when they are not on strike? This is a sincere question that I have pondered since Dow/Agent Orange/Vietnam days when we were not supposed to buy Saran wrap (I think). I didn't use it anyway so it was moot but I'd be interested in any substantial reporting on the issue.

In partial answer to #7 a rule of thumb is to go with the desires of the effected people.
Taking your example above : what did the Vietnamese people prefer you to do?
Of course working that out is not so easy for that matter but at least its a start.

By hannah's dad (not verified) on 24 Apr 2011 #permalink

Mike, I totally agree that boycotting is a way for the consumer to express their views. It just feels frustrating that the indignation of the EU subject receives the rebuttal of some Americans -- not you, obviously, but an ocean away all Americans look the same.

Mark P, it is pretty easy to find articles on the sweat shop practices of Puma, Nike, and several others.

I can't help but wonder if the outrage is because of the contrast between the Swedish and American workers, or because of the overall practice. Are there any American-based manufacturing organizations that employ similar labour standards in the US?

I believe that if the boycott you suggest is not effective, and with the lax US labour standards, this may become a more common practice for more companies. Government will justify keeping labour standards where they are to save money and keep jobs in the US. Eventually, the US could become the new China for cheap manufacturing.

Purely speculation, of course, but possible.

By JoeKaistoe (not verified) on 25 Apr 2011 #permalink

Mark P, it is pretty easy to find articles on the sweat shop practices of Puma, Nike, and several others.

While Americans must accept Nike as a USA company, Puma AG is incorporated in Germany, and therefore, is an EU entity.It is also easy to make broad generalizations and to provide incorrect and inadequate answers to specific questions.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 25 Apr 2011 #permalink

Rather than focus on IKEA, focus your energy on your elected officials to raise the national (and/or state) minimum wage. Or would that be considered too socialist? You want free-market? You get free-market.

IOW: O.J. murdered his wife. The only reason that he ought not to be in jail is that making the process lax enough to put him where he belongs would endanger innocent people.