Jean Ortiz, AP, September 20, 2008
A Grand Island meatpacking plant fired at least 86 workers Friday after they walked off the job amid a dispute over prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, company officials said.
But a Muslim leader and one of the fired workers said 150 Muslims lost their jobs.
JBS Swift & Co. spokeswoman Tamara Smid confirmed 86 firings late Friday, saying the employees were terminated earlier that day for repeatedly leaving work without authorization. She would not give any other details, including whether anyone else had been fired.
Mohamed Rage, who leads the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization, said 80 workers were thrown out after an altercation late Thursday. He says when they tried to return for their shift Friday, they were fired, along with 70 others.
Muslim workers—mostly of Somali background—have been asking for accommodations with break times to allow prayer at sunset. The issue led to walkouts this week—not only from Muslims but from non-Muslims who protested such accommodations as preferential treatment.
One of the Somali workers, Mohamed Farah, said some workers tried to take a break to pray Thursday around sunset. The break had been arranged with managers, Farah told The Associated Press, with Rage translating the conversation.
Farah said tension had been building in recent days with Latino workers, who started protesting when they saw the Muslim workers leaving for break. Farah said the Latino workers started shouting and beating on their tables.
The plant employs about 2,500 people, not counting management. About a fifth of them are Muslim.
Tensions have also flared elsewhere, including Swift’s plant in Greeley, Colo. More than 100 workers there were fired last week because the company said they walked away from work before their shifts ended.
On Monday, hundreds of Muslim employees walked off the job, saying they weren’t being allowed to take a break to pray during Ramadan. Break times were then altered on the second shift so the Muslim employees could make their fourth of five daily prayers at sunset.
Hoppes said most Muslim employees did not work Monday or Tuesday.
Then hundreds of non-Muslim workers walked off the job in counterprotests Wednesday and Thursday. Later Thursday, plant managers did an about-face, saying the new break times weren’t working.