Ikea Flies Rainbow Flag in Belgrade to Support LGBTQ Rights

Sweden’s Ikea raised the rainbow flag in front of its Belgrade store in a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Serbia, and is publicly supporting a draft law to recognize same-sex partnerships.

The furniture giant has been openly backing the Serbian proposal since March 10 this year, when Sara Del Fabbro, chief executive officer of Ikea South East Europe, took part in the first formal public discussion on the draft law organized by the ministry of human, minority rights and social dialogue. Ikea said it remains the only company in Serbia to have publicly done so.

Ikea Flies Rainbow Flag in Belgrade to Support LGBTQ Rights

“Many people in this country still believe that homosexuality is a disease, and they are still inclined to discriminate the LGBT+ people,” Del Fabbro said in an interview. “I feel very proud that we took a step publicly to support the adoption of the law. I hope we’ll not remain the only brand to do so openly.”

The pandemic has highlighted a surge in abuse and hate speech toward the LGBTQ community in Europe, according to advocacy groups such as ILGA. Trends in eastern Europe have varied, with Poland and Hungary clamping down on gay rights, while Serbia has followed neighboring Montenegro, which became the first non-European Union nation in the Balkan region to legalize same-sex partnerships last year.

Ikea, which entered the Balkan country four years ago, has also participated in a social dialogue sponsoring the draft that went through public consultation earlier this year. A so-called Progress Flag, including additional color stripes, was raised for the first time on Monday in other countries as part of steps marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, according to Ingka Group, which operates most Ikea stores.

Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s first female and openly gay prime minister, won a second term last October after a landslide electoral victory. Even so, several Serbian right-wing and conservative groups and activists recently organized so-called “family walks” in contrast with gay pride events, underlining the stigma. President Aleksandar Vucic has also signaled he won’t sign the bill on same-sex partnerships into law.

Ikea has a history of standing up for gay rights in eastern Europe. Its Polish unit was sued by prosecutors last year after it fired a man over his comment on the company intranet during a gay-pride corporate event. Ruling party officials also mulled boycotting the company.

There’s now a growing corporate push in eastern Europe for greater diversity in the workplace, a recent survey of human-resource professionals showed.

There are still 30,000 employees out of 166,000 at Ingka Group who don’t feel included for a variety of reasons including sexual orientation, according to Peter List, global head of equality, diversity and inclusion. The company tracks its progress using an inclusion index.

“If you hit inclusion you will create a more diverse workforce and people will want to join you from all elements of diversity,” List said in an interview. “That we know is good for business and society, and that’s what we need to keep working toward.”

Elsewhere in the region, Ingka has signed a civil initiative in Hungary in defense of same-sex parenthood, List said. Its global initiatives include gender-neutral bathrooms in Australia that have generated “a lot of feedback from customers and co-workers,” he added.

The response from Serbian organizations, media and opinion makers has so far been positive to Ikea’s LGBT+ engagement, according to Del Fabbro.

In Serbia, these “issues are still substantial, therefore it’s important that companies are standing for that in order to create a positive movement in society,” Del Fabbro said, adding that Ikea also makes sure it’s “sensitive to specific local needs.”

“It’s an evolution,” she said.

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