Posted on June 19, 2008

On the Job, Their Way

Chris Serres, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), June 15, 2008

Fatuma Hassan has just enough rice in her near-empty cupboards to make it through the month. The anger she felt when she lost her job in May has given way to a dull, nagging hunger.

Yet this soft-spoken 22-year-old became an unlikely hero within the Somali community when she and five of her Muslim co-workers were dismissed last month from the Mission Foods tortilla factory in New Brighton for refusing to wear a new company uniform—a shirt and pants—they consider a violation of their Islamic beliefs.

“For me, wearing pants is the same as being naked,” Hassan said, noting the prophet Mohammed taught that men and women should not dress alike. “My culture, my religious beliefs, are more important than a uniform.”

Over the past century, Minnesota has seen waves of immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Norway and Laos, among other nations, and each group managed to move up the ladder of prosperity despite some initial doubts about their ability to integrate.

Yet nearly two decades after a violent civil war brought thousands of Somali refugees to the Twin Cities, their integration in the U.S. workplace is becoming more contentious.

Their insistence on maintaining Muslim traditions, including prayer times and modest clothing, have led to firings at several manufacturers across the state and a sharp increase in religious discrimination complaints.

The well-publicized clashes also have sparked legal and ethical debates on whether efficiency-hungry workplaces are doing enough or defiant workers are accommodating too little.


Twenty-three percent of Somali workers in Minnesota work in manufacturing jobs, well above the 16 percent for the population as a whole, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. And one-quarter of Somalis in the state over the age of 25 have less than a ninth-grade education, a rate five times higher than the overall population, according to census data.


Bias complaints rising


Religious discrimination complaints nationally have nearly doubled since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—a reflection, some argue, of the heightened state of anxiety and fear concerning Muslims. In Minnesota, Muslims filed 45 religious discrimination cases with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2007, up from just eight in 2004. The EEOC does not break down this data by ethnicity.


For Abdisalam Adam, director of the Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center in Minneapolis and an imam at an area mosque, the issue goes beyond 9/11 to cultural differences. “You would think this would have been more of an issue in 1993 or 1994,” when Somalis started arriving in the Twin Cities in large numbers, he said. “But now, Somalis and employers have gotten to know each other, and the situation is only getting worse.”

Many Somalis come from tribes that move with their herds every six months in a constant search for safe grazing land, Sheikhosman said. Many of these nomads are fiercely independent and equate freedom with being left alone, he said.

Sheikhosman said that each time he returns to Somalia to visit his relatives, he is struck by “the general chaos of the place,” he said. At a Somali airport counter, he said, the only way to be served is to yell and push one’s way through a crowd.


Combined with this nomadic sense of independence is a belief that faith and life are interconnected, and that religious practices should not be confined to a particular hour or day of the week, said Adam of the Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center.

Many of the religious discrimination complaints revolve around the Islamic prayer schedule. Praying five times a day is one of the essential pillars of Islam, but prayer times vary daily, based on the times of sunrise and sunset. In July, the difference between the afternoon and sunset prayers can be four hours apart; in December, it’s just two hours.

The changing prayer times can be disruptive to assembly-line manufacturers that maintain assigned break schedules and can’t afford to have their workers leave their work stations at unscheduled times. Many Somalis argue that their prayers take no longer than a bathroom break, yet bathroom breaks aren’t prohibited.


The Mission Foods clash has also led to a lawsuit. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, filed a religious discrimination complaint on behalf of the women with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Mission Foods had implemented the new dress code for all factory workers and told its Muslim workers that their traditional clothing was too loose-fitting and posed a safety hazard near machines.

Strength in numbers

Muslim religious leaders, or imams, play a significant leadership role in the Somali immigrant community and are often sought out for advice on how to behave in the workplace. Imams were vocal supporters of the Somali taxi drivers who, last year, attracted nationwide controversy for refusing to transport alcohol-toting customers from the airport.


Somalis’ growing numbers have helped embolden them, Corrie added. In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Minnesota was home to 24,430 people of Somali descent. But immigrant groups say the Somali population may be two or three times that number, because many Somalis are illiterate and don’t respond to census surveys.

“With numbers comes strength,” Corrie said. “There is now a critical mass of Somalis for them to mobilize and for their voice to be heard.”


On a few occasions, Somali male workers complained about having to take orders from female managers. And once, as violence in Somalia intensified, a fight broke out on a job site between members of separate warring clans. The company held a training session on how to get along in the workplace, and the fighting stopped.