VERSAILLES, France – The USB flash drive mysteriously appeared from an unknown delivery man. It contained an explosive treasure trove: a cache of surprising emails describing the intricate efforts of Ikea executives in France to gather information about employees, applicants and even customers.
“Tell me if these people are known to the police,” read the message from an executive to a private investigator and looked for illegal background checks on hundreds of Ikea applicants.
“A model worker has become a radical employee representative overnight,” read another. “We have to find out why.”
A decade after these emails surfaced, they are at the center of a criminal case that has caught the public eye in France. Prosecutors accuse the French arm of Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant, and some of its former executives, of having developed a “spy system” from 2009 to 2012.
The alleged snooping has been used to investigate employees and union organizers, investigate workers on medical leave, and identify customers seeking refunds for botched orders. A former military agent has been hired to carry out some of the more secretive operations.
The case aroused outrage in 2012 after the emails leaked to the French news media and Ikea promptly fired several executives in its French unit, including the former CEO. There is no evidence that similar surveillance has taken place in any of the other 52 countries where the global retailer is serving up a fresh picture of stylish frugality with Swedish meatballs.
However, the extensive activities in France, which according to court documents date back to 2002, have again raised questions about data breaches by companies in a country that has raised data protection rights in the digital age.
The case, which arises from a lawsuit brought by the French union Force Ouvrière and nearly 120 plaintiffs, mainly from labor organizations, has also highlighted the deep tensions in France between employers and unions, which tend to be more heated than in Sweden.
Paméla Tabardel, the deputy prosecutor of Versailles near the Ikea France headquarters in Plaisir, is seeking a € 2 million fine on Ikea France, a prison sentence of at least one year for two former company officials and a private detective. and fines for some store managers and police officers. A total of 15 people are charged. A jury judgment is scheduled for June 15th.
“Ikea came to France to promote an image as a homemade retailer with humanistic values,” Ms. Tabardel told judges in front of a packed courtroom last week when the trial was complete. Instead, Ikea France illegally monitored at least 400 people and used the information to their advantage.
Ikea attorney Emmanuel Daoud denied that more than two dozen of Ikea’s French stores were being systematically monitored at the time, and called for the charges against the company to be dropped. He argued that any invasion of privacy was the work of a single person, Jean-François Paris, the head of risk management for the French unit, who, according to Daoud, acted “alone” without the knowledge of Ikea’s top executives.
Mr Paris testified that the Ikea France executives noticed and supported the activity. “This was not a personal move, but a system put in place at the request of Ikea’s management,” he said, accusing the company of “cowardice” for blaming him.
An attorney for Jean-Louis Baillot, a former managing director charged in the case, denied his client was aware of systematic surveillance and said Mr Baillot was wrongly dismissed.
The victims’ lawyers described a methodical operation that took place in two ways: one that involved background and criminal checks on applicants and workers without their knowledge, and another that targeted union leaders and members.
The emails and receipts showed that Mr. Paris turned much of the legwork over to Jean-Pierre Fourès, a wiry, clear-spoken former French military agent in Africa who ran his own investigative agency and boasted of leaving “no trace” of his work to have.
Mr Fourès monitored hundreds of applicants and gathered information from social media and other sources to expedite review and hiring as Ikea expanded in France. He also ran background checks on unsuspecting customers who got tangled up with Ikea for large refunds. He insisted that he had never broken the law while collecting background material.
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Some Ikea executives used police sources to gain access to government databases for applicants in up to nine stores and searched for records of drug use, theft and other serious crimes. According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, people whose files were “dirty” would not be hired. As in the US, applicants in France must agree to background checks.
The surveillance included working people. In one case, Mr Fourès was tasked with investigating whether Ikea France’s deputy director of communications and merchandising, who had been ill for a year and recovered from hepatitis C, faked the severity of her illness when managers learned that she had traveled to Morocco.
He hired a contact to impersonate an airline employee and asked 12-year-old Ikea employee Virginie Paulin to submit copies of her passport stamps to win a free ticket offer. The passport confirmed her trip to Morocco.
“Excellent!” Mr. Baillot, the managing director at the time, wrote an email to Mr. Paris and Claire Héry, who was in charge of the human resources department. “We will do more checks after Christmas to corner them,” he wrote. (Ms. Héry’s attorney, Olivier Baratelli, said there was no evidence that she was aware of any systemic surveillance. The charges against her were dropped.)
Ms. Paulin was eventually released. She told the New York Times in 2012 that she had a second home in Morocco and had flown there to recover from her illness. She said she was so upset by her release that she attempted suicide.
Ikea officials paid special attention to the unions and their efforts to recruit members. Tension erupted in 2010 when Adel Amara, a union leader at an Ikea store in Franconville, northwest of Paris, called employees together to get a 4 percent increase. Ikea said the strike cost millions of euros in lost sales.
After that, Ikea “tried” to prevent further strikes by turning to a spy system, “said Vincent Lecourt, a lawyer for one of the deal’s French unions. Ikea managers set up a surveillance network to gather intelligence to fire and fire Mr. Amara Curb militant union activity, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
GSG, a French security company hired by Mr. Paris, advised Ikea to set a “legal trap” for Mr. Amara and sent one of its agents to pretend to be a cashier, court documents showed. The mole infiltrated the ranks of workers and reported conversations with Mr Amara and his wife, who were also Ikea employees, while spying on a number of other union activists.
“Their plan was to infiltrate the unions and explode them from within,” said Lecourt.
Mr Paris also hired a bodyguard disguised as an administrative assistant with the aim of protecting officials who alleged Mr Amara molested them. Mr Amara was later found liable for moral harassment by a criminal judge after Ikea France filed a complaint.
Mr Daoud, the lawyer for Ikea France, said there was no evidence of the unions’ allegations. “There was no hunt for union members,” he said.
That claim did not remove feelings of injustice among workers who said they were forever shaped by the moment they learned that their employer was spying on them.
Shortly after Ikea fired Mr Amara in 2011, he said in an interview that a USB stick was delivered to his home by a person who refused to provide identification and contained the explosive email treasure trove that the the basis of the lawsuit became.
The documents included almost EUR 1 million in revenue for surveillance activities, as well as a 55-page internal report on the union activities, personal situation and legal records of Mr Amara from his youth. There were lists listing hundreds of applicants and employees to undergo secret exams, and orders to examine some customers.
“That’s when I understood that Ikea was spying all the time and that it’s a regular practice,” said Amara. “It was absolutely surreal.”
Mr Amara said he took the USB stick to French news agencies and sparked the media firestorm surrounding Ikea France, which led to police investigations and the current trial.
“Ikea pretended that everything was powerful about its employees,” he said.
“If Ikea hadn’t been exposed,” he added, “it would have just continued.”
Gaëlle Fournier contributed to the coverage.