Three Somali Muslim women have filed a federal discrimination complaint against Amazon, claiming the company discriminated and retaliated against them for taking part in a Dec. 14 protest of working conditions at Amazon’s Shakopee fulfillment center.
Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights and legal advocacy organization, wrote a May 7 letter to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlining allegations of “discriminatory and unlawful treatment of Muslim Somali and East African workers” at Amazon facilities in the Minneapolis area.
Muslim Advocates said it was writing on behalf of three black, Muslim women of Somali origin whose names it did not disclose, who it says “have experienced discriminatory treatment, hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge on the basis of their race, religion, and national origin” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“These women are not alone: the conditions described in their charges reflect a broader pattern and practice of unlawful employment discrimination against Muslim, Somali, and East African workers at Amazon,” the filing says.
Amazon spokeswoman Brenda Alfred responded by releasing a statement saying, “We respect the privacy of employees and don’t discuss complaints publicly. Diversity and inclusion is central to our business and company culture, and associates can pray whenever they choose.”
The online shopping retailer is the second largest employer in the U.S., and has become one of Minnesota’s largest employers, with about 3,000 employees.
Minnesota is home to more Somalis than any other state, and advocates for them have estimated 60 percent of Amazon’s 3,000 workers in the region are East African, although an Amazon spokeswoman has said it’s less than 50 percent, and about 30 percent in Shakopee.
The EEOC filing claims Amazon has failed to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of its Muslim employees by repeatedly engaging in discriminatory conduct. The letter alleges Amazon offered inadequate space and time for its Muslim workers to pray in the summer of 2018. (Muslims pray five times per day — three times during a typical Amazon shift.)
The three unnamed women allege employees were afraid to take time away to pray, since that lost time would reduce their rate, or how many items they pack in an hour. Employees who regularly fell short of the required rate by praying faced repercussions such as write-ups that could lead to termination, they say.
One woman says she was so afraid of such repercussions she stopped taking breaks to perform ablutions before prayer, break her Ramadan fast, and even stopped going to the bathroom. She claims she got her first write-up for falling below the rate during Ramadan, when she was not able to eat or drink.
Alfred said prayer breaks of less than 20 minutes are paid, and workers can request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.
“We encourage anyone to compare Amazon’s pay, benefits, and workplace to other retailers, and to come take a tour and see firsthand,” she said in a prepared statement.
Amazon workers raised this issue at the Shakopee protest, but claim their religious needs are still not properly accommodated. For example, they say a lack of air conditioning made it almost impossible to fast during Ramadan and still keep up their rates.
Nabihah Maqcool, a legal fellow for Muslim Advocates, said the temperature control in the warehouse is more suited for the technology and robots than the workers, making it especially difficult when workers are fasting.
They say they didn’t get enough time to timely break their day-long Ramadan fasts, and some workers said they were told to quit when they requested time off for Eid al-Fitr, a three-day religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
Amazon has said it has gone to great lengths to accommodate Muslim workers and respect their religious beliefs including buying prayer mats from a local Muslim supplier and offering them to workers, converting a large conference room into a quiet prayer room during the month of Ramadan and allowing workers to transfer to night shifts during Ramadan if they prefer to sleep during fasting times.
Amazon also approved leaves of absence for workers who wanted to take Ramadan off, offered unlimited time off to workers to observe Eid al-Fitr.
The group also claims Amazon has consistently failed to promote East African employees, saying qualified Somali workers are regularly passed over for promotions in favor of white workers, who “regularly receive better duty assignments and better treatment” based on their race or national origin. Despite the large number of East African employees, they say there are almost no Somalis in management.
The letter also claims Amazon retaliated against Somali workers who participated in the Dec. 14 Shakopee protest organized by the Awood Center, a nonprofit created in 2017 to help advocate for East African workers in Minnesota.
Three of the anonymous women who are referenced in the EEOC complaint “were outspoken supporters of this protest,” encouraging others to participate and speaking to the media about working conditions, the letter says.
The protests were covered by media outlets including the New York Times, Vox, and Gizmodo. Almost immediately afterward, the women say they began experiencing “a campaign of retaliatory harassment from Amazon management” such as getting more difficult assignments, having conversations video recorded by supervisors and being written up.
They claim they tried to report improper write-ups to management, but Amazon failed to “adequately investigate or address their claims.”
“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 letter says.
They allege the harassment got so severe that one of the women was “constructively discharged.”
Another woman who was considered a model employee before the protest has now been told that just one more write-up would lead to her termination, they allege.
“They were model employees and they only began to be subjected to this treatment after their participation the rally,” Maqcool said.