Muslim Amazon workers in Minneapolis are fighting for religious rights

Khadra Ibrahin, a 28-year-old single mother of two and Somali immigrant living in Minneapolis, has been working at Amazon’s Shakopee fulfillment center for two years.

As a practicing Muslim, Ibrahin tries to pray five times a day. But because Amazon has the warehouse associates working on a strict hourly packing quota, she says she cannot take a prayer break. Associates are pressured to “make rate,” with the rate number increasing and decreasing depending on the season’s demand. The warehouse’s current packing rate is 240 boxes an hour, Ibrahin says, but it’s gone as high as 400. Associates are penalized if they fall behind this rate; they can get a write-up from a manager if they are too slow, which can lead to them being terminated.

Ibrahin usually chooses to pray during her timed breaks. “Breaks make our rate slow down, and then we’d be at risk of getting fired, and so most of the time we choose prayer over bathroom, and have learned to balance our bodily needs,” she told me in a recent phone interview.

Ibrahin, who works a 12-hour night shift from 5:30 pm to 6 am, says she’s worked about 20 different jobs since moving to the US as a 16-year-old in 2004. These jobs include working a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Alaska, cleaning Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and packing at a Target warehouse. Her current job at Amazon, she says, has been her hardest.

“Every time I walk through those doors, I am filled this dread that tonight is going to be the night that I get fired,” she says. “When you take a job at a warehouse, you have to be mentally and physically prepared for a certain kind of work, but I have never felt threatened by a workplace like this before,” she says. “I want to keep this job to provide for my family, and I am also working as hard as I can, but you can’t live under this type of pressure. The way Amazon pushes people is not moral.” (In a statement to Vox, an Amazon spokesperson touted the facility’s “excellent pay” and “comprehensive benefits.”)

Ibrahin says most of the 3,000 workers at the Minneapolis-area warehouse are from the East African immigrant community. On Friday, she will join many of these Amazon employees, as well as the local Minnesota community and politicians such as Representative-elect Ilhan Omar, the first Somali American elected to Congress, to rally outside of the warehouse in protest of Amazon’s work conditions. Several hundred people are expected to attend.

Ibrahin says the workers are asking to be treated humanely, calling on Amazon to display racial and cultural sensitivity. Workers at the Shakopee facility say they feel daily discrimination because of their race, ethnicity, and religion.

“Workers and the community want respect,” says Abdirahman Muse, the executive director of the Awood Center, which works with the local East African community and is helping the Amazon workers organize. “Responding to our demands for basic fairness and dignity are things we shouldn’t have had to even push Amazon on. We don’t want charity; we want respect and a fair return on the hard work that brings Amazon their profits.”

Amazon’s East African immigrant workers are accusing the company of mistreatment

Minneapolis is a haven for East African immigrants like Ibrahin, who flock to the area because of the ample job opportunities, and because the state of Minnesota has a robust infrastructure to accommodate refugees and immigrants. The East African immigrants in Minneapolis are both refugees and non-refugees, and they come from countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Local press has referred to Minneapolis as “Little Mogadishu” because it is the largest Somali community outside of East Africa.

Yet despite the size of the East African population, Muse from the Awood Center says he has heard from many immigrant Amazon workers that they do not feel supported by the company — even though Amazon aggressively recruited them.

“The managers are constantly telling us that we are the number one warehouse in the country, that we are the fastest, and they are always pressuring us to do more,” says Ibrahin. “They think we are robots, not humans.” She says that Amazon’s packing quota has workers spending their days in fear of “wasting time” on things like buying a bottle of water from a vending machine on a different floor, or driving to a restaurant to pick up a meal. “All we think about is, this 5 or 10 minutes will eat into my break time, and then that will make my rate slow down, and then I will get punished,” she says.

East African immigrant workers have been trying to raise their issues with Amazon for some time. Last month, the New York Times reported that the workers had made history by getting Amazon executives to sit down with them and listen to their complaints.

In response to the meeting, Amazon made changes that mainly dealt with issues around practicing Islam. Muslim Amazon workers had no place to pray in the warehouse, and they complained about not being able to keep up with the job during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when they fast until sundown. Amazon responded by creating a dedicated prayer space, and said it has been working to make shifts more manageable during Ramadan. But Muse says these moves are like Band-Aids that address small issues without tackling the larger problems.

The inside an Amazon warehouse in Brieselang, Germany.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“People frequently talk about pressure they get taking any breaks at Amazon, but Muslims are impacted more than others due to prayer obligations,” says Muse. “During Ramadan [and the holiday that marks its end] Eid, employees have the right to use PTO, unpaid time off, or vacation time if they have time available in account. They have to use those banked time allotments for religious holidays, giving them less time than their non-Muslim co-workers to take off for when [their] kids are sick.”

Amazon workers have been fired for not meeting their rate in the past, according to the Awood Center — a scenario that workers have said was a result of their observing Ramadan.

Ilhan Omar said in an email that she feels it’s important for Amazon to fully “take into consideration the particular needs and practices of this community.”

“Amazon has shown a willingness to invest in American communities and build up in areas where there businesses are located,” Omar says. “We want to see the company make that same investment in American workers and make sure profits and benefits are being adequately and equitably distributed to their own workers. There is no better time to deliver this message than right now — during a month when the holiday season is increasing not only Amazon’s profitability, but also the pressure on their workers, and time they are asked to spend away from their families.”

In a statement to Vox, Amazon said:

We work hard every day to ensure all of our employees are treated fairly and with dignity and respect, including here in Minnesota where we have an open and direct dialogue with employees. Amazon offers a great employment opportunity with excellent pay – ranging here from $16.25-$20.80 an hour, and comprehensive benefits including health care, up to 20 weeks parental leave, paid education, promotional opportunities, and more. [We] encourage anyone to compare our pay, benefits, and workplace to other retailers and major employers in the Shakopee community and across the country. We invite anyone to see for themselves and take a tour through our fulfillment center tour program.

Regarding its prayer breaks, Amazon told me that “prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and productivity expectations are not adjusted for such breaks. Associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.”

Ibrahin also says that until recently, nearly all Amazon managers at the Shakopee warehouse were white, which contributed to the culture gap many African workers perceive in the facility. Amazon recently brought in a Muslim manager for the warehouse from Austin who is from Libya. Muse says the hire is upsetting to existing workers because “there is plenty of talent [at the local warehouse], which is clearly not being recognized for managers.”

“I am African and I do not see myself reflected in the management,” Ibrahin says. “We have a right to stand up and speak up for ourselves, and we feel they are not in solidarity to us.”

“Amazon must stop using fear, discipline and firing as tools to consistently speed up the work being done,” adds Muse. “Workers are fighting so these are not only good jobs where they have decent pay and benefits, but jobs where they can stay and grow. The rate is at levels that people burn out and are treated as disposable. People are getting hurt and having their bodies wear out because of the stress from increased productivity demands. No job’s workload should mean choosing between risking someone’s health and losing their paycheck.”

The Minneapolis rally is part of a larger Amazon worker movement

While the East African workers face unique challenges stemming from language barriers and religious practices, the issues they cite about Amazon’s workload pressures are widespread. Several Amazon employees have spoken up over the past few months about what life is like inside the warehouses that ship nearly half of all e-commerce purchases in the US.

In July, when workers in Spain, Poland, Germany, Italy, and France used Prime Day to strike and rally, a former Amazon warehouse worker named Seth King from Chesterfield, Virginia, told me that the warehouses were the type of place where “they work people to death, or until they get too tired to keep working.” He left after two months because the job had brought him to “the lowest point in my life” and that he felt “I couldn’t work there and maintain a healthy state of mind.”

A representative from GMB, the union for Amazon workers, stages a protest over conditions at an Amazon fulfillment center in Swansea, Wales, on November 23, 2018.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Recently, a former Amazon fulfillment center manager in California described the Black Friday shift, telling me that the pressure workers like King and Ibrahin feel is intentional; that “workers constantly feel like their jobs are on the line, because they are.”

“We were supposed to be observing their [packing] rate and not be concerned with how hard it is to pack things,” the former manager said. “Managers were pressured to identify the weak links and get them out so that we can have a faster rate. It’s a pressure cooker environment, and that’s what you have to be to get to Amazon’s level of efficiency.”

And Amazon workers in various areas have organized demonstrations this year. Over Black Friday weekend last month, Amazon workers in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK staged mass walkouts, protesting poor conditions and low wages. Workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Staten Island are currently working to unionize, on the heels of the company announcing it would open a major hub in New York.

Ibrahin maintains that she would like to keep her job at Amazon, but the current levels of pressure are inhumane.

“I wish for customers to know that behind every Amazon order is a human being, and we deserve to be treated fairly,” she says. At the rally, she adds, “we will stand together to tell Jeff Bezos that we are not robots; we are human beings.”

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