“It’s not a good thing when you have a family and you are supporting your wife, your kids,” Abdinasser Ahmed told The Denver Post. While this is the story of thousands of immigrants across America, Ahmed’s experience is a little different. He is one of the 190 Muslim workers who were fired late last month from Cargill Meat Solutions factory in Fort Morgan, Colo. as the result of, to put it mildly, a “prayer dispute.”
This dispute arose after approximately 200 Muslims, most of them immigrants from Somalia, were denied a break from their schedule to perform their daily prayer, which lead to a three-day strike that ended in their dismissal.
Out of the 2,100 workers, between 600 and 700 are Muslims who were previously provided a space for their worship. But Asha Abuukar, a Cargill employee since 2011, asked, “Why are you giving us a place to pray if we aren’t given the time to pray?” Now, five years later, the Muslim employees are being told: “If you want to pray, go home.”
However, a spokesman for Cargill, Michael Martin, claimed that the company’s actions have been mischaracterized, stating, “At no time did Cargill prevent people from prayer at Fort Morgan, nor have we changed policies related to religious accommodation and attendance.
Three days into the strike, Cargill illegally fired 190 of the 200 protestors. Cargill defended their actions, claiming that company policy allowed them to dismiss any employee who doesn’t show up for work for three days, or call their supervisor to request time off.
The Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) has negotiated on behalf of 100 strikers, who have been persistent in their demand for a prayer space, in hopes of resolving this issue soon.
CAIR spokesman Jaylani Hussein asserted that typically, Muslim employees would pray during their allotted 15-minute break or their unpaid 30-minute lunch break, with prayer times changing depending on the season. In a statement to the Denver Post, Martin argued that “there has been a desire among some employees to go in larger groups of people to pray. We just can’t accommodate that. It backs up the flow of all the production. We’re a federally inspected, USDA inspected plant. We have to ensure food safety. We have to ensure the products we produce meet consumer expectations.”
We at MuslimGirl spoke with Amer Zahr, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, who is involved in this case and said that this issue is a multifaceted one.
According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employees must be afforded religious accommodation for a “reasonable” request, which he said Cargill failed to provide.
The company responded to media requests with this statement: “Cargill makes every reasonable attempt to provide religious accommodation to all employees based on our ability to do so without disruption to our beef processing business at Fort Morgan.”
Although the accommodation may cause some minor disturbances, Zahr argued it is not legally permissible to deny the employees a religious need just because it will have a minimal effect on the business. “It is expected that the accommodation will have some sort of effect on an employer — that’s why it’s called an ‘accommodation.'”
Considering the employees were carving out their prayer times from the breaks they’re allotted by law, it requires very little effort for supervisors to simply work with employees to schedule breaks in small group rotations that keep production flowing smoothly, while fulfilling the religious obligations of the Muslims.
The union responsible for defending the Muslim employees who participated in the strike abandoned their members shortly after their dismissal. Had the workers identified with another religion, it’s reasonable to assume that the outcome would have been quite different.
“This all happened because of the extreme climate of Islamophobia,” Zahr said.
Written by Naaz Modan.
Image: Screengrab from CNN Video