JBS Swift Muslim Workers Protest Ramadan Reversal

Chris Casey, Greeley (Colorado) Tribune, September 9, 2008

More than 150 Muslim workers didn’t report to their meatpacking plant jobs Monday in the wake of what they called JBS Swift & Co.’s sudden reversal of accommodation for their religious fasting during Ramadan.

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Graen Isse, a Swift worker and group spokesman, said the workers would not discuss details of their grievances, which were supplied to Swift in writing, until the company responded. He said he expected to hear from Swift Tuesday morning.

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The workers, mostly Somalis but many also from several other East African nations, said they were told by Swift management on Friday to not report to work Monday until the matter of changing break times to accommodate their Ramadan fasts was settled.

On Friday, about 300 Muslim workers left work mid-shift—about 9:30 p.m.—when they say they were told not to break at 7:30 p.m., when their roughly 12 hours of daily fasting for Ramadan ended. Earlier in the week, the workers negotiated with Swift to get an earlier break to allow them food and water after their fast.

Several Somali workers said Monday the company had fired as many as six employees on Friday, but a Swift official said Monday afternoon that was not true.

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Ramadan is one of the most important parts of the Muslim calendar. The fasting, which lasts a month, is one of the five pillars of the Muslim religion. The month, based on the Muslim lunar calendar, requires Muslims to fast from sunrise until sunset. The fast is a method of purification, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Swift has hired hundreds of Somalis—as well as Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Cameroonians and Congolese—in the past two years. The company’s recent addition of 1,300 jobs on a second shift opened the door to the African refugees who are legally in the United States. The Somalis—about 1,085 came to Colorado in the last year—have come to the United States under the United Nations resettlement program for refugees.

[Tamara Smid., a JBS Swift spokeswoman,] read a company statement late Monday afternoon: “Friday evening, a group of employees left work without proper authorization. The matter was discussed with their union representatives and the company took appropriate action. JBS Swift desires to accommodate the religious practices of all employees, which includes its Muslim employees, provided it can do so reasonably, safely and without undue burden.

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Friday afternoon, about 150 non-Muslim Swift workers protested the company’s break-time accommodation of the Muslims. They said that the change was unfair to workers of other religious beliefs who don’t receive similar concessions.

Brianna Castillo, a non-Muslim JBS Swift worker told the Tribune Friday, “The Somalis are running our plant. They are telling us what do to.”

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On Friday, JBS Swift’s global human resources director Jack Shandley said U.S. law requires companies to “make reasonable accommodations” for religious observances.

Shandley said the company was working quickly to address worker complaints on both sides of the issue.

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Joe Rios, a day-shifter for nine months at Swift, said he felt the Somalis were asking for special treatment and “taking advantage of our kindness” in America. He said “most of us” at Swift are Catholic and observe a month of Lent each year without seeking work concessions based on religion.

“I think it’s either you want to make money and work and put your prayers aside or you stay home,” he said.

Rios said he’d heard that some disgruntled Muslim workers damaged property in the Swift parking lot Friday.

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