Workers look for clear line in murky border issue

Why We Wrote This

Ethical issues are rarely easy for companies. Wayfair, targeted by its own employees for alleged complicity in a humanitarian crisis along the U.S. border, is the latest example. 

Katie Penfield/The Christian Science Monitor
Kelsey Barowich (l.) and Maria Blanco hold signs in Boston's Copley Square to support the walkout by Wayfair workers June 26 over the company's sales to a detention center holding migrant children.

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When the furniture retailer Wayfair faced a protest by its own employees this week, it hinted at rising concern about human rights at detention centers for migrants who have crossed the U.S. border into Texas. Wayfair workers planned their walkout after learning that their employer had sold beds and mattresses to a nonprofit running one of the border facilities.

The protest also reveals a more general trend. In an era of rapid sharing on social media, many workers expect their employers to take stands on moral issues. Young employees like Wayfair’s Emily Garbutt are driving the change, expecting that their voices will be heard – even if it sets up difficult policy choices for companies.

“People have said, ‘Oh, it’s a slippery slope. If you won’t sell to these guys, then who else will you not sell to?’ But I think this is a good place to draw the line,” she said. “This is one we can get out ahead of and say, ‘Yeah, we shouldn’t make money off of people imprisoning children. We shouldn’t benefit from that in any way.’”

Emily Garbutt says her work for online retailer Wayfair is “the best job I’ve ever had” and describes the workplace as inclusive and collegial. But this week, she also helped organize a protest against the company’s sale of beds to an organization managing one of the controversial detention centers housing migrants apprehended at the U.S. border in Texas.

Those detention camps have drawn heightened attention in recent days after news reports of appalling conditions for young children, separated from their parents and lacking basic needs such as soap, toothbrushes, or diaper changes.

“People have said, ‘Oh, it’s a slippery slope. If you won’t sell to these guys, then who else will you not sell to?’ But I think this is a good place to draw the line,” Ms. Garbutt told the Monitor Wednesday as she and co-workers staged a public protest in Boston’s Copley Square. “This is one we can get out ahead of and say, ‘Yeah, we shouldn’t make money off of people imprisoning children. We shouldn’t benefit from that in any way.’ ”

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
Outside U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Border Patrol station facilities in Clint, Texas, June 27, a child holds a placard during a protest against the treatment of children in immigration detention.

Wayfair isn’t the only company caught up in the storm of public concern about what many Americans see as a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, as migrants largely from troubled Central American nations stream northward faster than U.S. authorities can process pleas for asylum. This week, Bank of America said it would cut ties with companies that run private prisons and border detention centers.

The focus on how private companies intersect with U.S. border policies reflects a wider trend. Increasingly, businesses are being nudged to take stands on questions of societal values or justice, driven not only by customers and advocacy campaigns but also by their own workers. The reasons, experts say, range from generational changes in attitudes to the way social media has accelerated the ability for people to communicate and organize.

This changing societal ethos can create challenges for corporations. If staying neutral on an issue has often felt like the safest course in the past, today in at least some cases it carries reputational costs.

“It’s clear that companies cannot afford to sit on the sidelines when it comes to taking a stand on [a] trending issue,” says Ericka McCoy, chief marketing officer at Resonate, a provider of consumer intelligence for marketers, based in Reston, Virginia. In an interview by email, she adds a caveat: “It’s critical that the issues they choose to take a stand on align to ... their core brand values.”

A complex reality

That can be a delicate distinction. 

“Decisions on whom not to do business with shouldn’t be made on an ad-hoc basis. They should be guided by a set of principles and applied with a case-by-case review of the customer,” Boston Globe columnist Larry Edelman wrote this week. And “just because there is a process, it doesn’t mean that choosing whom to blacklist is easy.”

He noted that the nonprofit that Wayfair sold beds to “doesn’t make fighter planes, bombs, or assault rifles. It doesn’t peddle cigarettes to children and in foreign countries.”

Overall, Americans are conflicted over immigration policy, with considerable support for both border security and for avoiding harsh treatment of immigrants who arrived without authorization.

“There’s a large contingent of American people that support border enforcement,” says Jim Copland, an expert on legal policy at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York. “If people want to make a good faith argument for open borders, let them do it,” he says. But for now “we have to figure out what we’re going to do with people who come across the border. And to suggest that we don’t want to create adequate housing facilities or bedding for these people is inhumane on its face.”

It’s a discussion that flared this week independent of the Wayfair protest. As the two parties sparred over dueling bills to add funds on the border, Republicans blamed Democrats for being slow to deal with border needs. And Democrats, although they have backed away from alleging the crisis is entirely “manufactured” by President Donald Trump, argue that Trump policies have made it much worse.

Even within Wayfair, Mr. Copland notes that not all employees joined the protests, a signal of Americans’ mixed views on the issue. 

Some onlookers to the protest, which crowded a well-trafficked section of Boston, disapproved.

“I would make sure, when they got back to their desks, that each one of them can vacate their desk by 5:00. Remove whatever personal belongings they have. And I would bring in a new wave of employees,” said Cevin Hynes of nearby Arlington, Massachusetts. 

Wayfair takes a step

For many of the protesting workers, a core point is that the detention camps shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Madeline Howard, a protest organizer, points to Wayfair’s own values as a company that markets furniture. “The core one that we’ve been naming is ‘Everyone deserves to live in a home that they love.’ Right?”

Wayfair has pledged to donate $100,000 to the Red Cross, a bit higher than what employees say were the profits from the sale of beds and mattresses. The company hasn’t publicly changed any policies on sales.

“It’s a start,” says Tyrone Jackson, a Wayfair software engineer, referring to the donation. “At least the profits are going somewhere.”

Protest organizers had asked that the profits be donated to RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), a nonprofit providing legal services to immigrants and refugees in Texas. 

Some investor groups, including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, are pressing companies to cut ties with border camps and privately run prisons, among other issues. Nadira Narine, a senior program director at ICCR, sees rising public concern about such moral concerns rooted in today’s quickening flow of information.

“It’s in your face these days, and in your face in the worst ways,” she says, “when you’re seeing a father and daughter washing up on the shore” after drowning in the Rio Grande. And when people choose to organize in response, “new technologies … are available to rally up in a short amount of time.” 

Travis Ellis, a Boston-area resident who was in Copley Square to support the employee walkout, acknowledges that a protest is “outside of the normal realm of what we’re used to.” 

But he wants companies to be politically minded, in the sense of understanding that “everything we do affects everybody else. So we have to be careful that we don’t end up hurting other people in the process of going about trying to make a buck.”

Hannah Harn, Thomas Shults, and Danny Jin of the Monitor staff contributed to this story from Boston.

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