Accenture Workers Petition to End $47 Million Border Patrol Contract

(Bloomberg) -- Accenture employees are circulating a petition urging the company to cancel its contract to help the Trump administration recruit border patrol agents, the latest in a wave of recent technology-fueled protests by white-collar workers challenging potential collaboration with law enforcement.

“The technology we provide is sold in the name of efficiency, but all we see is technology supercharging inhumane and cruel policies,” the petition states. “We joined Accenture because we want to work for a company that does good in the world, a company that helps vulnerable immigrants, not facilitates putting them into cages.”

Inspired by employee protests at other companies, Accenture staff began gathering electronic signatures at the end of last week, according to people familiar with the efforts who asked not to be identified due to concerns about retaliation. The petition is hosted on an internal company forum so that any current employee can see its text but not who has signed it.

In an emailed statement, Accenture spokeswoman Stacey Jones said it welcomed the employees’ feedback. “An important part of our culture is that we encourage all our people to have a dialogue about issues that arise in the workplace and beyond,” she said.

A version viewed Wednesday by Bloomberg had been signed by 47 people so far. The petitioners have yet to decide on a time or plan to share the document with management.

CBP Contract

The petition concerns a $297 million, five-year contract Accenture secured last year, to help the federal Customs and Border Protection agency hire 7,500 new staff, including 5,000 border patrol agents. President Trump called for the hiring surge during his first week in office, saying that “illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger” to U.S. interests.

The Accenture employees’ letter notes that the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families was denounced by Amnesty International as a “flagrant violation” of human rights and “nothing short of torture.” The petition says the CBP contract is “unethical and immoral” and runs counter to Accenture’s stated commitment to “build a more equal and inclusive society.”

The lucrative contract has also piqued the interest of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. In January she asked CBP’s acting commissioner to explain why the agency needed outside help to hire more staff and how it determined $42 million per year -- close to $40,000 per planned officer hire -- was a reasonable price to pay.

A representative of CBP didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meaningful Response

So far, the number of signers is tiny compared with Accenture’s 459,000 employees spread across 52 countries. Still, if employees’ ethical concerns about a company provoke outside attention, managers would be wise to at least listen and offer some meaningful response, said management attorney Marshall Babson, a former National Labor Relations Board member who now represents employers.

“The response, I daresay, may vary, but it would not be consistent with what most business managers are learning these days about running companies to wholly ignore the concerns of the people upon whom they’re relying for their success,” Babson said.

Executives’ Concerns

The prospect of caving to activist employees carries concerns for executives, said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school.

“I think leadership will likely be more concerned about the slippery slope argument -- ‘if we give in on this, we will lose control of everything’ -- than they are about irritating the workforce,” Cappelli said. The best move for managers in such a situation, he said, is to have supervisors “find out informally how big an issue this is,” and “see if the supervisors can talk it down without creating a confrontation with leadership.”

The effort by Accenture workers is the latest by non-union employees to put pressure on an employer -- a phenomenon that, even when only a small number of people are involved, has the potential to catch fire. Momentum from such endeavors can capture larger swathes of colleagues, inspire activism by outside supporters, capture the attention of the broader public and cast a spotlight on under-the-radar corporate practices.

Last summer, McKinsey stopped working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement under employee pressure. Hundreds of Microsoft workers signed a letter urging the tech giant to cancel its data processing and artificial intelligence contract with ICE (Microsoft responded by saying it was “dismayed” by Trump immigration policies and that to its knowledge its services were not being used for family separation).

Amazon employees signed a similar letter to CEO Jeff Bezos opposing the sale of facial recognition software to police departments. Nine Google cloud software engineers refused to work on an “air gap” security feature; following additional protests, the company let a lucrative Pentagon contract expire.

“You’re seeing people taking collective action – not just for themselves, in relation to their own salary or hours or benefits, but they’re showing real solidarity,” said Harvard Law School fellow Terri Gerstein, former head of the New York attorney general’s labor bureau.

“They’re defining their working conditions to include what their work is ultimately used for,” she said. “People don’t want to just be a cog in something that they think is deeply wrong.”

On Nov. 1, thousands of Google employees around the world staged a walkout over the company’s handling of sexual misconduct, spurring the company to grant some of their demands including an end of forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault allegations.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.