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BOSTON — They walked out shortly after lunch, leaving their desks and marching down from the seventh floor of the downtown Boston headquarters where they work.
The Wayfair workers then spilled onto famous Copley Square where hundreds of employees and supporters protested the online furniture retail giant’s sales to migrant detention centers.
Their early afternoon demonstration Wednesday came in response to Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah rejecting a request by 571 employees who signed a petition asking the company to desist from doing business with contractors of border detention camps on the U.S.-Mexico border.
One man on the street yelled “Go back to your desks!” as the first group of protesters exited the building. But when they got to the square a block away, they found an army of progressive activists ready to cheer them on.
“We don’t want our company to profit off of children being in concentration camps,” said Madeline Howard, 29, a project manager at Wayfair, who has worked there six years and emceed the event. “We want them to have a code of ethics that blocks orders like this from happening again.”
‘Everyone deserves a home they love!’
Some protesters held signs that read, “Wayfair Comfy with Concentration Camps,” “A Cage is Not a Home to Love” and “Boycott Wayfair!” Other signs read “People Over Profit,” and “Solidarity with Wayfair Workers! Shut Down the Concentration Camps!”
It marked the first major protest from employees of a corporation for selling goods to detention centers amid heightened tension at the US. southern border.
“This is the first time I felt like I needed to hit the streets to make sure that I was proud of my company,” Howard said, “that I was happy to work for them, to make sure that we’re all adhering to those Wayfair values – like everyone deserves a home they love!”
President Donald Trump has pushed a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, resulting in the separation of children from migrant families in detention camps. Six children have died in detention since September as a large surge of immigrants from Central America seek asylum.
The Wayfair protesters said they found out Monday that their employer had sold $200,000 in bedroom furniture – bunk beds and mattresses – to Baptist Child and Family Services, a nonprofit government contractor that managed detention camps for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. The furniture is destined for Carizzo Springs, Texas, the protesters wrote in a letter to the company’s executive staff, to a facility that will be equipped to hold 3,000 detained migrant children.
Wayfair donates $100K to American Red Cross
Wayfair’s executive leadership commended the workers’ commitment to making a difference but said not everyone shares their perspective and that it is “standard practice” as a retailer to fulfill orders to all customers who is acting within the law.
The company responded to the walkout Wednesday by announcing a new $100,000 commitment to the American Red Cross’s efforts to help those in need at the border get basic necessities. Wayfair did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Demonstrators have two goals: force Wayfair to stop profiting off detention camps in future sales and for the company to donate all the profits from the $200,000 sale to groups in support of migrant families.
Emily Garbutt, 30, who has worked in tech support at Wayfair since December, said the company needs to “draw a line” on how it does business. “I think it’s a fair to say that a good place to draw the line is kids in jail.”
She also responded to criticism that the demonstrators don’t want kids to have beds.
“Of course we all want kids to have beds. If you think kids should have beds, please yell right now,” she asked the crowd, prompting cheers. “Beds are important. Every child should have a place to sleep, where they can feel safe and loved and be with their families.
“That’s what this is about,” she added. “This is about getting children home to their families and not making money from detaining them.”
‘Grave concern and anger’
Organizers did not have an exact count on the number of Wayfair employees in attendance. It appeared to be more than half of the demonstrators. They were joined by traditional liberal activists including union, social justice and immigrant advocates and other Trump critics.
The protesters’ letter sent this week to Wayfair leaders said they have “grave concern and anger about the atrocities being committed at our Southern border.” It called out the “mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in our country.” The letter also quoted a United Nations statement that says detaining children is always a violation of their right
“We want to be sure that Wayfair has no part in enabling, supporting or profiting from this practice,” the letter reads.
Some Wayfair workers went home after the protest while others returned to work.
Tom Brown, 33, an engineer at Wayfair for four months, said organizing for the walkout started only the previous morning. He said there are no plans to go on strike.
“This is all happening fast,” Brown said. “When we see an injustice like this, we’re going to do something about it. We sent that petition hoping that management would do the right thing. We’ve seen them do the right thing before.”
Brown said he hopes the group’s walkout “starts a conversation” about finding the right solution with management.
“The out-crying of support has just been overwhelming,” he said, pointing to the backing of several high-profile Democrats including presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.
‘This is the one we noticed’
Scrutiny over deplorable conditions at border detention camps has heightened since a group of lawyers reported a lack of food, water, soap and medical care inside a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, where older children had to look after toddlers and several kids had the flu.
NOT JUST CLINT: Sick, hungry migrant children in other facilities, too, some in ‘cages,’ others sleeping on concrete
Garbutt said Wayfair’s management has promised to not retaliate against employees who took part in the walkout.
She said it’s “hard to say what success looks like” from her perspective but wants to see a company policy to prevent future sales to contractors working for detention centers. She wasn’t sure how many sales like it happened before this one.
“This is the one we noticed,” she said. “It may not be the first or last. But we want it to stop.”