Updated 10 a.m. Sunday
A group of East African Amazon workers walked off the job for three hours early Friday morning to demand better working conditions at the Shakopee fulfillment center.
A majority of employees working the night shift in the stow department (where items are placed into inventory) walked off the job for three hours, according to the Awood Center. However, an Amazon spokeswoman indicated it was fewer than 15 employees, less than half the department's night shift staff.
“The characterization of the size of the group is inaccurate," Amazon spokeswoman Brenda Alfred said in an email. "The group of employees involved did not represent the majority of the night shift in the STOW department and actually was far fewer than half.”
She said there was no impact on operations because the majority of employees continued to work.
“A small group of associates left during their shift, some of whom went to a nearby restaurant so we disagree on how this activity has been portrayed," Alfred said.
The protesting employees published a photo on Facebook of them holding a sign saying "We are humans, not robots." About 2,500 people and 5,000 robots work together at the massive Shakopee warehouse, packing and shipping everything from cannoli shells to glue to Meow Mix to customers all over the world.
"These 30 workers came together to demand that Amazon employees have safe jobs, respect from managers and a voice in the workplace," the Awood Center said in a Facebook post Friday.
The workers posted a list of demands they said revolve around safety, respect, reliability including:
- A safe, humane, lower productivity rate rather than "unfair rates that force errors and end careers."
- Better maintenance of pallet jacks to reduce injuries.
- Separation of heavy boxes from others.
- An end to counting prayer breaks against their productivity rate.
- More opportunities for promotion.
- Support from management.
- An end to "unfair firings."
- An end to temporary hirings.
- Give employees a voice in decisions that affect them.
- Set up a committee to give employees a voice.
In response to their demand regarding prayer breaks, Alfred said employees have flexibility in how they take prayer breaks. If the break is less than 20 minutes, it is paid and productivity expectations aren't adjusted. Employees can also request an unpaid prayer break of more than 20 minutes, for which productivity is adjusted, she said.
Regrading their request for a committee to voice concerns, Alfred said, “We have an open door policy that allows associates to bring their questions and concerns directly to their managers. We also have voice of the associate boards, small group meetings and other programs where associates can provide us with direct feedback.”
She said Shakopee employees make $16.25 to $18.20 per hour, receive comprehensive benefits and have opportunities for career growth while working in a safe, modern work environment staffed by 95 percent full-time local employees.
"At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company through various channels, training, and meetings," Alfred said. "We encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and workplace environment to other retailers and major employers in the community and across the country. For us, it will always be about providing a great employment experience through a direct connection with our employees and working together as a team to provide a world-class customer experience.”
The Awood Center is a nonprofit created in 2017 to help advocate for East African workers in Minnesota. It shares space with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations at a Lutheran church in Minneapolis.
The groups helped organize a large protest at the Shakopee warehouse on Dec. 14, generating national headlines because it's believed to be the first such protest at a fulfillment center, although such protests are common in Europe, according to Gizmodo.
During that protest, the workers said Amazon raised its production expectations to unrealistic levels and has harsh working conditions that cause injuries to employees, especially during the holiday rush. They also called for more promotions of East African workers and called on Amazon to stop selling products that promote hatred and bigotry.
They chanted, played drums, prayed, and got words of support from Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar. Omar, the first Somali-American elected to Congress, encouraged the crowd to keep up the fight, reminding them that she once worked on an assembly line and cleaned offices and other “hard jobs” where she would go to the bathroom just to pray or rest her feet.
In November, after Amazon met with and responded to East African workers regarding their concerns about productivity expectations, the New York Times reported “they appear to be the first known group in the United States to get Amazon management to negotiate.” No unions represent Amazon workers in the United States.
But an Amazon spokeswoman said it was not a negotiation, but the type of “engagement” Amazon typically has with military organizations or LGBTQ advocacy groups to ensure an inclusive work environment.
“Amazon did not make any concessions in response to employee concerns raised in November," Alfred said.
Minnesota is home to more Somalis than any other state, and the Awood Center has estimated 60 percent of Amazon’s 3,000 workers in the region are East African. An Amazon spokeswoman has said it’s actually less than 50 percent, and about 30 percent in Shakopee.
More than 2,500 employees work in the Shakopee fulfillment center, many of them Somalis bused in from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which the locals call “Little Mogadishu,” named after Somalia's capital. Many of them are Muslim, which is why Amazon has worked to accommodate their need for prayer time.
Abdirahman Muse, community activist and executive director of the Awood Center, has not responded to a request for comment.