VERSAILLES, France -- Ikea’s French subsidiary and several of its former executives went on trial Monday over accusations that they illegally spied on employees and customers.
Trade unions reported the furniture and home goods company to French authorities in 2012, accusing it of collecting personal data by fraudulent means and the illicit disclosure of personal information.
The unions alleged that Ikea France paid to gain access to police files that had information about targeted individuals, particularly union activists and customers who were in disputes with Ikea.
The company fired four executives and changed internal policy after French prosecutors opened a criminal probe in 2012. But at Monday's trial in the Versailles court, lawyers for Ikea France denied any strategy of “generalized espionage."
An Ikea employee and CGT union activist, Hocine Redouane, said at Monday's trial that the company wrongly suspected him of being a bank robber because their investigation system found criminal records involving a bank robber with the same name.
“Such a system can easily slip into abuse,” Redouane said.
Another accusation alleged that Ikea France used unauthorized data to try to catch an employee who had claimed unemployment benefits but drove a Porsche. Another says the subsidiary investigated an employee’s criminal record to determine how the employee was able to own a BMW on a low income.
The former head of Ikea France’s risk management department, Jean-François Paris, acknowledged to French judges that 530,000 to 630,000 euros a year ($633,000 to $753,000) were earmarked for such investigations. Paris, who is among those accused, said his department was responsible for handling it.
Former Ikea France CEOs Jean-Louis Baillot and Stefan Vanoverbeke, former Chief Financial Officer Dariusz Rychert, store managers and police officers are also going on trial.
If convicted, the two ex-CEOs face sentences of up to 10 years in prison and fines of 750,000 euros. Ikea France faces a maximum penalty of 3.75 million euros. The trial is scheduled to last until April 2.
The company also faces potential damages from civil lawsuits filed by unions and 74 employees.
Anne-Solene Bouvier, lawyer for the employees, argued that the case is important for French society as a whole. “The right to privacy for employees should be sacred,” she said.
Ikea France, a subsidiary of Swedish furniture company Ikea, said Monday it has cooperated with French judicial authorities.
“Ikea France takes the protection of its employees’ and customers’ data very seriously,” the company said in a statement. It said it adopted compliance and training procedures to prevent illegal activity after the investigation was opened in 2012.
The lawyer for Ikea France, Emmanuel Daoud, said there was no poof of “a widespread system of spying.” The lawyer for the company’s former human resources director called the case “a fairy tale” invented by union activists.
In France, Ikea employs more than 10,000 people in 34 stores, an e-commerce site and a customer support center.
Nicolas Vaux-Montagny reported from Lyon. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.