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Muslim workers at Amazon say they were scared to pray for fear of being fired

Mary Hanbury , Business Insider US
 May 09, 2019, 08:18 PM
CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Three Muslim Somali women have filed a federal complaint against Amazon, alleging that they faced racial and religious discrimination while working at its warehouses in Minnesota.
  • Calling for investigation, these women said that they feared taking time off to pray, fast, or go to the bathroom in case they were fired.
  • They said that white workers were promoted over East African and Muslim Somali workers and given better jobs.
  • An Amazon spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint, but said diversity and inclusion are "central to our business and company culture."
  • For more, go to Business Insider SA.

Three Amazon workers have filed a federal complaint against the retail giant, alleging that they faced racial and religious discrimination while working at warehouses in Minnesota.

The three women, of Muslim Somali descent, said they feared taking time off to pray, fast, or take bathroom breaks in case they were fired, according to a letter from civil rights group Muslim Advocates which formed the backbone of a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"Lost time would reduce a worker's 'rate' or how many items a worker packs per hour," the letter said. "Employees who regularly fell short of the rate - simply because they attempted to observe their religious obligations to pray -faced repercussions such as 'write-ups' that could lead to termination."

The letter, first reported by The New York Times, added that a lack of air conditioning in the warehouses contributed to making it "almost impossible for Amazon's Muslim employees to keep fasting during Ramadan while maintaining the high rate demanded by Amazon."

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint, but said diversity and inclusion are "central to our business and company culture," and workers can "pray whenever they choose." He added: "Prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted."

Passed over for promotion and retaliatory harassment

The three workers also alleged in the letter that Muslim Somali and East African workers are "regularly passed over" for promotions over white workers. White workers receive better assignments and work, they said. Amazon did not address this specific complaint in its statement.

Working conditions in Amazon's warehouses have come under increased scrutiny in recent years as horror stories of workers resorting to peeing in bottles in order to save time so that they are able to meet targets have surfaced.

These controversial working conditions have provoked a string of protests across the US and Europe from disgruntled workers who said they are treated like robots. Some of these protests took place during some of Amazon's busiest shopping times, such as Black Friday.

The three Muslim women were among other Amazon workers to rally in protest of the Minnesota warehouse working conditions in December 2018. They had an active role in this protest, sharing their story with the press, and rallying other workers to join. Because of this, they have experienced retaliatory harassment, they say.

All three women have had pretextual write-ups, which are a step toward termination and one woman has had her everyday conversations repeatedly video recorded by her supervisors, the letter said.

"The charges show that Amazon's message to Somali workers has been clear: since they protested Amazon's discriminatory actions, Amazon management would now create an environment so harassing and hostile that they would be forced to quit," the Muslim Advocates letter said.

Muslim Advocates wants the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to open an investigation into the allegations. The commission is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against employees because of their race, religion, sex, age, and disability among other things.

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