Last week, online home goods retailer Wayfair saw a mass employee walkout related to the company selling $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to BCFS, a government contractor running a facility in Texas that would detain thousands of immigrant children along the border. The employees were dissatisfied with the company’s response to their letter objecting to the transaction and a previous furniture sale to another BCFS facility for children that was shut down after the Department of Health and Human Services raised concerns, including that the company was not conducting required staff background checks, such as for records of child abuse.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have detained tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, including many asylum-seekers, who have crossed the U.S. southern border in facilities that have been plagued with terrible conditions. These facilities also house children who have allegedly faced widespread mistreatment after the government separated them from their families.
Over 500 Wayfair employees signed the letter to management objecting to the BCFS sale and asking that the company donate resulting profits to RAICES, a nonprofit organization providing legal support to asylum-seekers and refugees on the border. The letter also called for the company to cease all business with BCFS and “establish a code of ethics for B2B [business-to-business] sales that empowers Wayfair and its employees to act in accordance with our core values.”
In an internal statement, Wayfair executives lauded the employees’ passion but said that, “as a retailer, it is standard practice to fulfill orders to all customers and we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within we operate.” Later, executives also stated that they would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross to support work along the border. While applauding the donation, employees at the company’s Boston office staged a walkout the next day that attracted national media attention.
As certain political issues become more fraught and attract more media and public attention, companies should expect increased scrutiny of their connections and business dealings with government agencies and their contractors, including from their own workers. Continuing these relationships and work could expose businesses to reputational risk—being seen as participating in or facilitating unpopular or unethical conduct—and could seriously impact employees’ work satisfaction, as well as their belief in the company and its professed values.
Specifically responding to criticism of its funding of immigrant detention sites, last Wednesday, Bank of America vice chair Anne Finucane told Bloomberg that the bank would stop lending to companies that run immigrant detention centers and private prisons, including government facilities at the border. According to Bloomberg, the decision was made after the company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) committee reviewed the policy, including visiting prisons and consulting experts, clients, civil rights leaders and the company’s Hispanic and black leaders. JPMorgan Chase made a similar move in March, and Wells Fargo is reportedly following suit.
Over the past year, employees of many top companies have spoken out against their employers for facilitating controversial immigration enforcement activities. In June 2018, Microsoft employees expressed comparable objections to chief executive Satya Nadella after discovering that the company had a $19.4 million contract to provide ICE with data processing and AI services. In response, Nadella released a memo decrying the Trump administration’s immigration policies and explaining that the company’s work did not have anything to do with family separations, but did not promise to cancel the contract. The same month, after a meeting in which Amazon pitched ICE its Rekogition facial recognition platform, employees sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos objecting to the company working with ICE, selling Rekognition to police departments, and providing digital infrastructure to tech companies running surveillance and other services for ICE.