OMAHA, Neb. – Supervisors at a meatpacking plant have fired or harassed dozens of Somali Muslim employees for trying to pray at sunset, violating civil rights laws, the workers and their advocates say.
The five- to 10-minute prayer, known as the maghrib, must be done within a 45-minute window around sunset, according to Muslim rules. The workers at the Swift & Co. plant in Grand Island say they quit, were fired or were verbally and physically harassed over the issue.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has drafted a complaint to be filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The petition compiles testimony from at least 44 workers who had planned to sign the complaint during a meeting Sunday. The signing was changed to a later date because of a logistical problem.
Jama Mohamed, 28, said he was fired in June for leaving a production line to pray. Supervisors would not allow him a break, he said.
"Some of them took the (prayer) mat from me; they started shouting, they started telling me to stop it, and one of them grabbed me by the collar of my shirt," Mohamed said through an interpreter.
"I was crying at the time this was happening to me, and when I finished I told them while they were doing that I was in the middle of a prayer."
Mohamed said he was then called to an office, where a supervisor fired him.
Mohamed Rage, chairman of the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization, said Swift had fired at least two dozen workers for praying since May.
Donald Selzer, an attorney for Greeley, Colo.-based Swift, said only three Somali workers were fired for reasons relating to the issue, and that it was for walking off the line without permission, not for praying.
Unscheduled breaks can force unplanned shutdowns of lines, Selzer said.
"That is a significant number of employees, and there is not much of a way to accommodate that consistent with keeping the production online," he said.
The complaint reprises issues that boiled over in May, when 120 Somali workers abruptly quit for similar reasons. About 70 returned a week later, but union officials worried the issue would resurface through the late spring as sunset came later in the evening shift.
"For three days it was all good and we were praying; there was no hassle, no interference, nothing at all," said Ali Schire, 30, who said he returned to the plant but was later fired for trying to pray.
"All of a sudden after three days it just all got loose, and they were suspending people, they were firing people," Schire said through an interpreter. "Some of the people even had to give up praying at all for fear of being fired."
Said Selzer: "These people are absolutely entitled to pray, and they should not be interfered with for doing so. But on the other hand, the only situations that I've been made aware of are people that walk off the job without permission, and that's a different kind of an issue."
Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said he had not heard of many Somali workers being fired or harassed since May. Prayer breaks are not in the contract, he said, but he hopes to revisit the issue in negotiations in 2010.
Swift rejected a suggestion by the Council on American-Islamic Relations to allow the Somalis who work evenings to leave in smaller shifts to avoid disrupting lines, said Rima Kapitan, an attorney with the group.
The company suggested phasing evening workers to shifts earlier in the day that did not interrupt prayer times, Selzer and Hoppes said.
"We're perfectly happy to try to pursue that angle so that we don't have this conflict," Selzer said. "But given the people who are on the second shift — many of whom prefer to be there — this sort of presents the operational realities."
Mohamed said it is important for Muslims to pray within scheduled times and not to postpone prayers or say them early.
"I would never forgive myself and God would not forgive me if I do not pray on time because I want to earn some money," he said.