Meat-packing giant Cargill has fired nearly 200 Muslim workers, most of them Somali immigrants, over a prayer dispute. The prayer dispute has been ongoing for a while, according to sources, but the situation erupted when nearly a dozen workers walked off the job on Friday, December 18, and dozens more failed to show up for work the following Monday.
The prayer dispute took place at Minnesota-based Cargill’s Fort Morgan, Colorado, facility, where live cattle are processed into boxed beef products in a work day that is broken into two shifts. The facility employs about 2,000 workers, according to the Star Tribune, nearly 600 of which are Muslim Somali immigrants. Since 2009, Cargill has offered a non-denominational “reflection room” where workers of all faiths are able to pray, as time permits, but Muslim employees of the meat-packing giant allege that their needs were not met.
According to the Washington Times, the prayer dispute arose when the Muslim employees, whose faith requires prayer five times each day, were not able to leave their stations at will. The specifics of the conflict are not clear. Representatives of the fired individuals allege a work environment where daily prayer was discouraged, and where employees had their jobs threatened.
At the same time, a statement issued by Cargill, and obtained from local outlet CBS Denver, indicates that the company’s policy has always been to allow employees time for prayer, so long as it doesn’t interrupt operations at the plant.
“While reasonable efforts are made to accommodate employees, accommodation is not guaranteed every day and is dependent on a number of factors that can, and do, change from day to day. This has been clearly communicated to all employees.”
Jaylani Hussein, a representative of the Minnesota chapter of CAIR, told the Star Tribune that the situation which led nearly 200 workers to stage a walk-out has been building for some time, with Muslim employees allegedly being denied prayer breaks.
“This has been going on for a long time,” Hussein told the Star Tribune. “There have been instances last year and this year where supervisors would literally say, ‘You’re fired, you’re going home,’ if you go to pray.”
On December 18, the situation came to a head. According to Hussein, some of the Muslim employees were allowed to pray, while others were not. When they took the issue up with a supervisor, Hussein says, they were told, “If you don’t want to work here, go home.”
The sequence of events played out differently, according to a representative from Cargill. Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman, told the Star Tribune that on December 18, during second shift, 11 employees asked to pray at the same time. Company policy allows for daily prayer, but only if it doesn’t interfere with plant operations, and only three employees from any one department are allowed to leave their stations to pray at any given time.
According to Martin, all 11 employees left their stations to pray at once, and 10 of them submitted resignations when the shift was done.
This occurred during second shift on a Friday. The following Monday, nearly 200 Muslim employees failed to show up for work. According to the statement issued by Cargill, employees are required to call in if they will be absent for three or more consecutive days. If no contact is made, the employee may be terminated. Since none of the nearly 200 employees made any contact, despite what the company calls multiple attempts to resolve the situation, they were all fired three days later.
“Multiple attempts were made to discuss the situation with local Somali employees without a successful resolution, including a Tuesday (12/22) meeting at the plant management’s request. Plant management and union representatives met with Somali leaders without resolution.”
According to the Washington Times, Cargill and CAIR continue to negotiate, although the employees were terminated over the prayer dispute once they missed three consecutive days of work.
[Photo by Kevin Frayer/AP]