A nonprofit group that represents Somali workers plans to stage a protest at Amazon's Shakopee fulfillment center at the height of the busy holiday season next month over complaints of how the online retailer manages productivity at its large facility and other issues.
The protest planned for Dec. 14 follows discussions between Amazon officials and leaders in the East African community to discuss workplace conditions that, among other things, have workers fearing for their jobs and uneasy about religious accommodation.
"We are not asking them to cater to East African workers," said Abdirahman Muse, community activist and executive director of nonprofit Awood Center. "We are just asking them to treat workers humanely."
Amazon's 885,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Shakopee employs more than 1,500 workers. Amazon estimates that about 30 percent of workers at the Shakopee fulfillment center are East African.
Amazon administrators met with Muse and other East African community leaders in September and October to address the concerns. Amazon said it offered that one of its Somali-speaking managers could be a point of contact to workers who have concerns about procedures and policies. Amazon administrators also agreed to meet with Awood as well as other organizations on a quarterly basis.
"The safety and well-being of our employees is our number one priority," said Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson in a statement. "Amazon has operations around the world, and we deeply value our connection to the communities where we are located. Each community is a little different and in each one, we work to ensure our employees have a great experience with the most important element being our direct connection to our employees."
While conversations with the company were a start, they failed to resolve concerns, Muse said.
Amazon workers have complained to Muse and others that the e-commerce giant had dramatically increased its production quotas for employees to unrealistic levels, causing many employees to fear for their jobs.
Abdukadir Ahmed Hayir, of Minneapolis, has worked at the Amazon facility for more than a year. During that time, he said the number of boxes he's expected to pack has increased by 50 percent.
"It's really difficult," he said in a translated interview.
Sometimes after he gets off work at 5 p.m., he said doesn't have enough energy to take a shower and just goes to bed with his shoes on.
East African workers also face a lack of advancement opportunities, with few being selected for promotion to management positions, Muse said.
While some East African leaders had been hopeful that the discussions with Amazon would be productive, there was collective disappointment that Amazon didn't do more to address their concerns, Muse said. The Awood Center, a nonprofit that was formed last year to advocate for East African workers in Minnesota, plans a Dec. 14 demonstration outside of the Shakopee facility.
"It looks like we are moving forward, but I think very slow," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). "I think it's just a question of seeing if Amazon is interested in actually solving these problems."
Amazon said production rates are based on a wide range of metrics.
"Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazon associate and we measure actual performance against those expectations," said Robinson via e-mail. "Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve."
Workers can also take paid prayer breaks but are expected to meet their performance goals.
Amazon began conversations with local East African organizations this past spring after a general manager noticed that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which many East African employees observe, and Amazon's busy annual Prime Day fell close to the same time and could cause some workplace challenges. The manager reached out to local mosques to discuss how to best accommodate religious needs at work.
Ali Khalif Galaydh, a retired professor of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and former prime minister of Somalia, was invited by Amazon to tour its Shakopee facility and said he was impressed by what he saw.
"I think there's room to reconcile," he said. "Hopefully, we'll arrive at a win-win situation."
John Budd, a labor relations professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said production rates have long been a key employer-employee debate. Especially with the Twin Cities experiencing a low unemployment rate of about 2.8 percent, workers are more empowered to speak up to their employers.
"The labor market is very tight," he said. "Unemployment is very low. Workers feel like that they have some power … so that emboldens them to push back."