As Wayfair Workers Protest Migrant Detention, the Specter of a Consumer Boycott Rises

As Wayfair Workers Protest Migrant Detention, the Specter of a Consumer Boycott Rises

Frustrated Americans, spurred on by social media campaigns, have been quick to cut off their spending on big brands as a form of political protest in the Trump era.

That makes an employee walkout at the online home furnishing company Wayfair particularly precarious, as some of the company’s staff loudly objected to its involvement with the detention of migrant children near the United States’ southwestern border.

Employees at the company’s Boston headquarters left their offices Wednesday afternoon to protest Wayfair’s sale of more than $200,000 of bedroom furniture to a government contractor that operates a network of the centers. The walkout followed reports of facilities that were overcrowded and filthy, where children and teenagers were lacking clean clothing and sufficient food.

The walkout has not led to a full-blown boycott yet, but the situation has drawn the attention of activist groups that have had some success using social media to rally consumers. Sleeping Giants, a Twitter account with 235,000 followers that was formed to choke off ad dollars to far-right groups after the 2016 election and has since become a consumer action organization, shared a tip on the Wayfair orders on Tuesday.

By the end of the day, the company’s employees had organized their walkout using the newly formed @wayfairwalkout account on Twitter to garner support, and some people were already tweeting a #BoycottWayfair hashtag.

“We had gotten an anonymous tip from someone who worked there saying that the agency responsible for the detention centers placed a fairly large order and that there were people within the company that had a big problem with that, and we put that out there,” Matt Rivitz, who created Sleeping Giants, said in an interview. “This next wave of protest is not just consumer-oriented, but it’s also employee-oriented.”

Wayfair declined to comment on the walkout.

Social media has helped fuel a host of boycotts in the nearly three years since President Trump’s election. The online boycott campaign #GrabYourWallet pressured retailers like Nordstrom to stop carrying merchandise tied to the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. Calls to #DeleteUber followed accusations that the company tried to profit from a protest against the president’s executive order barring refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States. L.L. Bean, New Balance, Kellogg’s and more have all found themselves at risk of politically motivated boycotts in recent years.

Lately, the pressure has also been coming from employees. At big technology companies like Google and Microsoft, workers have turned to petitions and walkouts to seek change, including around who they do business with. At Microsoft and Amazon, workers have objected to working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At Wayfair, more than 500 employees signed a letter to the company’s leadership on Friday asking that the company cease doing business with the contractor, BCFS, and others involved in operating such facilities. The employees said that they were writing “from a place of concern and anger about the atrocities being committed at our Southern border,” and wanted to ensure that Wayfair had “no part in enabling, supporting, or profiting from this practice.”

Wayfair’s leaders defended the contract in a letter on Monday evening and said it was the company’s business to sell to any customer who was acting within the law. They added, “No matter how strongly any one of us feels about an issue, it is important to keep in mind that not all employees or customers agree.”

Wayfair isn’t alone in facing criticism.

Sleeping Giants has targeted Bank of America for providing financing to Caliburn International, the parent company of the Homestead facility for minors in Florida, saying it is “the only big bank profiting from family separation.”

On Wednesday, Bank of America said that it would end its relationships with all private prison companies.

“The private sector is attempting to respond to public policy and government needs and demands in the absence of longstanding and widely recognized reforms needed in criminal justice and immigration policies,” Jessica Oppenheim, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, said in an email to The New York Times. “We have been discussing this topic for some time.”

Two other banks, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan, said they would end their relationships with the private prison industry in March.

“As we’re learning more about the horrific conditions in the Trump-era detention centers, things are ratcheting up, and people are looking for more ways to express that frustration,” said Shannon Coulter, a founder of the #GrabYourWallet campaign.

“I got a lot of requests yesterday for information on any other companies that may be doing business with the detention centers,” Ms. Coulter said on Wednesday. “We don’t have perfect visibility into that, but as we learn more about the companies that do business there, we’re adding them to the list,” she said. “We’re in touch with a lot of organizations that do work with immigrant communities.”

Ms. Coulter that her group was not yet adding Wayfair to its boycott list because people at the border needed beds, and because it was waiting to see how the company’s executives would respond after the walkout. For example, she said, the company could choose to fill the orders without profiting from them.

On Wednesday, Wayfair apparently told employees that it would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross. The move was praised on the @wayfairwalkout account, but it also noted that the organization had nothing to do with the detention facilities.

Mr. Rivitz said his group was focused on questioning companies while informing consumers, who could make their own decisions about what companies they wanted to support. That’s a particular risk for consumer-facing brands.

“Yes, there are big private prison groups and large nonprofits that are involved in this, and ultimately they’re going to do business how they do business,” Mr. Rivitz said. “But certainly, companies that we all use, consumers expect a little bit more.”

“It’s really hard for people to see shiny and happy people in ads, then know a company’s profiting off incarcerated children,” he added.

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