* Research suggest greater use of prison labour than thought
* Firms say the stocks, components sourced unwittingly
* IKEA apologised in 2012 for using forced labour
By Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN, Jan 14 Leading German firms including
supermarket chain Aldi and carmaker Volkswagen stocked goods or
used components made by forced labour in former Communist East
Germany, a study has found, although both firms insist they did
Research by the federal authority responsible for managing
the archives of East Germany's Stasi secret police (BStU)
uncovered a far broader use of prison labour during the 1970s
and 1980s by Western firms than previously acknowledged.
The study could eventually help victims seek compensation.
In 2012 Swedish furniture giant IKEA apologised for using
forced labour to make some of its furniture.
It, like thousands of other Western companies, once
subcontracted production to state-controlled firms behind the
Iron Curtain, where labour costs were lower. Some of those
state-controlled firms turned to prisons to find a workforce.
"The study found that IKEA was just the tip of the iceberg,"
a spokeswoman for the BStU said. "Some prisoners were forced to
work against their will and in circumstances that endangered
An estimated 10 percent of East Germany's prisoners were
locked up on political grounds. The state all but collapsed with
the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and west and east
Germany unified a year later.
German broadcaster ARD, which received an advance copy of
the study, said discount retailer Aldi had sourced products from
an East German stockingmaker that used women prisoners.
It also said carmaker Volkswagen had used parts such as fog
lamps, tail lights and windscreen-wiper pumps in its Golf cars
and transporter vans made by East German firm VEB
Fahrzeugelektrik Ruhla, which East German documents showed had
Aldi said in a statement: "It is true that through trading
with East Germany we had a business relationship with the
state-owned stocking firm Esda Thalheim."
"It was only through research by Bavarian radio last year
that we realised that Esda Thalheim had given some parts of its
production to the Hoheneck women's prison," it said.
Aldi added that an employee at the time had visited Esda
Thalheim in the mid-1980s and had seen nothing to indicate it
outsourced any part of its production, let alone used a prison.
"We condemn the apparently common practice in East Germany
of using prison populations for forced labour," the firm said.
Volkswagen said that it did not know then, or now, in which
part of the East German firm which product was made, and it had
no knowledge that prisoners may have been used.
"Volkswagen never initiated the use, or knowingly approved
the use of prisoners in East German firms, let alone profited
from this," it added.
Roland Jahn, head of the BStU, told ARD: "Whoever got
involved with a dictatorship and did business with a
dictatorship, could never be sure under what circumstances
products were made."
He urged firms to open their archives and fund further
research, which could eventually help to compensate those
(Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson and Andreas Cremer;
Editing by Alison Williams)