On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of Wayfair employees streamed out of the company’s Boston offices and congregated in Copley Square to protest the home-goods retailer's refusal to stop supplying furniture to immigration detention centres on the U.S.-Mexico border. They chanted, waved signs with slogans like “Solidarity with Migrant Families,” shared sunscreen, and fought back angry tears at the thought of having unwittingly become a part of what many consider to be human rights abuses on the part of the U.S. government.
“I’m proud to work at Wayfair,” Elizabeth Good, a manager, told the crowd on the unseasonably warm day. “And I’m proud to continue the dialogue that will lead to us ending the support of concentration camps at our southern border.”
“We don’t want to profit off of being complicit in human rights violations,” she said, to loud cheers. “That’s the message — pretty clear.”
The walkout comes amid renewed outrage at the conditions in border migrant detention centres, with escalating reports of unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and cruelty. Advocates, lawmakers, and historians alike have likened the facilities to concentration camps and demanded that the Trump administration take action. It has been widely reported that migrant children are being held in custody for weeks without access to adequate food, space to sleep, or even basic necessities like toothpaste — which is in direct violation of the law thanks to the 1997 Flores settlement agreement.
The employees are asking that Wayfair commit to the requests of a letter they wrote, posted on Twitter, urging the company to end business with contractors like BCFS, a nonprofit government contractor that helps manage the centres, establish a code of ethics that would prevent such future business deals, and that all profits from sales to detention centres be donated to Texas immigrant legal services nonprofit RAICES.
.@Wayfair stated in an email today that they will be making a donation of $100k to the @RedCross. This is great news! And proof that Wayfair can & does do good.— wayfairwalkout (@wayfairwalkout) June 26, 2019
However, the Red Cross has nothing to do with these ICE-operated facilities.https://t.co/UehtJibmWF
On its website, under the heading “Our Promise,” the online retailer says that, “Wayfair believes everyone should live in a home that they love.”
Standing in front of the 150-year-old Trinity Church, employees and advocates echoed this sentiment. Some of their signs even read, “A Cage Is Not A Home To Love.”
Many employees were hesitant to speak with Refinery29, but when they did they shared a similar message — they did not want to have any part in profiting off incarcerating children.
“I’ve had this job for seven years, I started straight out of college. It was my first job. This is the first time that I felt like I needed to hit the streets to make sure that I was proud of my company. That I was happy to work for them and we’re adhering to those Wayfair values, like — everyone deserves a home that they love!” Madeline Howard, a Wayfair product engineer who helped organize the demonstration Wednesday, told Refinery29.
The protesting employees didn’t seem to have any concerns about losing their jobs, even though they were hesitant to go on record when asked about this.
“Definitely not, there’s a culture there that really encourages voicing your opinion,” one worker, who requested not to be named, told us.
For the employee organizers and supporters in the middle of the mix, doing call-and-response shouts for justice, there seemed to be a sense of righteous anger. For the anonymous staffers who stood around the perimeter, there seemed to be feelings of deep disappointment and despair. While there was talk of moving in the “right direction,” there was a feeling overall of hearts broken as a result of putting profit over people — over children.
On Tuesday, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer Steve Conine hosted a "packed" staff meeting that was also described as "cringeworthy," according to The Atlantic, which obtained audio recordings of the meeting. Conine declared that he was "very much against these detention centres," but also emphasized the company’s "duty not to be a discriminatory business" and rejected workers’ demands.
Conine seemed to be rejecting assigning any kind of morals or values in the Wayfair workplace, saying in the recording, “We do a hundred thousand orders a day right now. There are hundreds of organizations every day that we’re selling to that many of us in this room would not approve of. ... We also feel like we have a duty not to be a discriminatory business.”
The company’s brass seem to be following the direction of other tech companies by distancing themselves from anything other than providing a service, and claiming that not providing said service to everyone is somehow discriminatory. It remains to be seen if this tactic, which seems at best naive in our current political landscape, and at worst, predatory, will pay off for Wayfair in the long term.
The central ethical question that has emerged is what role a company like Wayfair can play in this ongoing crisis. While many are calling for the migrant detention centres to be shut down, many of the people in them are still going without beds or other basic necessities. Isn't providing beds at least solving a temporary need?
Many Wayfair employees don’t seem to think so. An anonymous employee, who was wearing their purple Wayfair shirt, said, “The ideal situation is to close the detention centres. We should not be holding kids prisoner. And the fact that the company is profiting off that is not okay, and they’re not the only company doing it.”
Refinery29 has reached out to Wayfair for comment, and we’ll update this story when we hear back.