JBS Swift Muslim Workers Protest Ramadan Reversal
September 10, 2008 at 5:20 am
- Somali Workers at Swift
By Chris Casey
September 9, 2008
Muslim employees of Greeley’s JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plant congregate Monday at Lincoln Park, 10th Avenue and 9th Street in Greeley, to hear the compromise reached by the Somali Muslim community leaders and the executives at Swift. The workers are asking the company to allow them to have their break at 7:30 p.m. to break their fast of Ramadan.
More than 150 Muslim workers didn’t report to their meatpacking plant jobs Monday in the wake of what they called JBS Swift & Co.’s sudden reversal of accommodation for their religious fasting during Ramadan.
The workers initially planned a two-mile march from downtown Greeley’s Lincoln Park to the plant, but a gathering that formed mid-morning never left the park. Throughout the day, several Greeley police officers watched from the park’s edge.
Company officials met with several workers Monday afternoon at the plant, and Somali representatives later spoke with workers in downtown Greeley.
Graen Isse, a Swift worker and group spokesman, said the workers would not discuss details of their grievances, which were supplied to Swift in writing, until the company responded. He said he expected to hear from Swift Tuesday morning.
“I believe (the workers) will be back to their jobs,” Isse said.
Asked what would happen if the workers didn’t get what they wanted, Isse said, “That’s another question. We’ll pass on that.”
The workers, mostly Somalis but many also from several other East African nations, said they were told by Swift management on Friday to not report to work Monday until the matter of changing break times to accommodate their Ramadan fasts was settled.
On Friday, about 300 Muslim workers left work mid-shift — about 9:30 p.m. — when they say they were told not to break at 7:30 p.m., when their roughly 12 hours of daily fasting for Ramadan ended. Earlier in the week, the workers negotiated with Swift to get an earlier break to allow them food and water after their fast.
Several Somali workers said Monday the company had fired as many as six employees on Friday, but a Swift official said Monday afternoon that was not true.
“No one has been terminated at this point,” said JBS Swift spokeswoman Tamara Smid.
Mohammed Osman, a Swift worker, said three women Muslim workers were fired after they went into an employee locker room to pray in the early evening Friday.
Omar Clarke, who described himself as “a white-and-black” Muslim but not Somali, said workers at 7:30 p.m. Friday were told not to leave their work lines. He said the company then locked bathrooms to stop workers from going to them.
“At 7:30 Friday they did not accommodate us on our religious beliefs,” he said. “After they told us we couldn’t pray, we all walked out.”
Ramadan is one of the most important parts of the Muslim calendar. The fasting, which lasts a month, is one of the five pillars of the Muslim religion. The month, based on the Muslim lunar calendar, requires Muslims to fast from sunrise until sunset. The fast is a method of purification, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Swift has hired hundreds of Somalis — as well as Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Cameroonians and Congolese — in the past two years. The company’s recent addition of 1,300 jobs on a second shift opened the door to the African refugees who are legally in the United States. The Somalis — about 1,085 came to Colorado in the last year — have come to the United States under the United Nations resettlement program for refugees.
Smid read a company statement late Monday afternoon: “Friday evening, a group of employees left work without proper authorization. The matter was discussed with their union representatives and the company took appropriate action. JBS Swift desires to accommodate the religious practices of all employees, which includes its Muslim employees, provided it can do so reasonably, safely and without undue burden.
“JBS Swift works closely with its employees and their union representatives to accomplish this balance of reasonable accommodation and operational requirements,” the statement concluded.
Smid said she could not elaborate on the size of the group that left work and what the company’s “appropriate action” might entail.
The workers said they didn’t know if they would return to work Tuesday. Many said they were waiting to hear from Swift management.
Friday afternoon, about 150 non-Muslim Swift workers protested the company’s break-time accommodation of the Muslims. They said that the change was unfair to workers of other religious beliefs who don’t receive similar concessions.
Brianna Castillo, a non-Muslim JBS Swift worker told the Tribune Friday, “The Somalis are running our plant. They are telling us what do to.”
Aziz Dhies, who doesn’t work at Swift but said he is a local representative of the Somali community, said the Somalis are peacefully trying to get what they consider a rightful concession to their religious beliefs.
“We are very peaceful people. We don’t hate anybody,” he said. “We love everybody here.”
On Friday, JBS Swift’s global human resources director Jack Shandley said U.S. law requires companies to “make reasonable accommodations” for religious observances.
Shandley said the company was working quickly to address worker complaints on both sides of the issue.
We’re working with all parties to try to reach a reasonable accommodation,” Shandley said. “We think we’re reaching that to balance the needs of everybody.”
Manny Gonzales, spokesman for United Food Commercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents production workers at Swift, said Monday that the union was “filing the appropriate grievances over the matter” and working to negotiate a resolution.
Greeley police spokesman Joe Tymkowych said Monday morning that the Somali workers had notified the police they would march to the plant. As of early afternoon, the workers were meeting peacefully in the downtown park and not causing a disturbance, he said.
Meanwhile, at about 3:30 p.m. Monday, about 30 East African workers walked into the plant for the evening work shift. Isse said they were brand-new hires reporting for their first day of work.
Joe Rios, a day-shifter for nine months at Swift, said he felt the Somalis were asking for special treatment and “taking advantage of our kindness” in America. He said “most of us” at Swift are Catholic and observe a month of Lent each year without seeking work concessions based on religion.
“I think it’s either you want to make money and work and put your prayers aside or you stay home,” he said.
Rios said he’d heard that some disgruntled Muslim workers damaged property in the Swift parking lot Friday.
Tymkowych said police, who responded to the release of workers Friday night, didn’t encounter any vandalism. “If it happened inside (the plant), they didn’t tell us about it,” he said.
Entry filed under: Islam, Modern Day Islam, Muslims, Politics, Religion, Special Privileges for Muslims, Uncategorized. Tags: Islam, Modern Day Islam, Special Privileges for Muslims.