On the job, their way

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2008 - 9:51 AM

Clashes are increasing between Somali Muslims and Minnesota employers. Can the loose-fitting garb be a safety hazard? Is there a difference between a bathroom break and a prayer break?


Ayaan Abdi is a janitor with Marsden Building Maintenance of St. Paul. About 300 of Marsden’s 1,600 Twin Cities employees are from East Africa. The company has assigned spaces at some work sites to allow Muslim workers to pray five times a day — a practice that has caused friction in some other companies.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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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.

"For the average Minnesotan, this is entirely new," said Bruce Corrie, an economist at Concordia University in St. Paul who specializes in immigration research. "The Somali community is highly assertive and politically engaged. ... It's part of who they are as a people."

But the root cause of the persistent tension is more about economics than culture or religion, say some immigration experts.

Unlike their counterparts from other parts of the Muslim world, a disproportionate percentage of recent Somali immigrants have taken lower-level assembly line jobs where accommodations for religious practices are seen as an impediment to productivity.

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.

"We have a saying in Somalia that 'he who approaches the lion does not know what a lion is,'" said Abdi Sheikhosman, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Minnesota. "Many Somalis arrive here not knowing the history of racial divide in this country. They don't know the lion they are up against."

Bias complaints rising

Of course, the melting pot that is the United States has always had immigration clashes. "In places that have successions of immigrant groups, the latest one is always seen as the worst of all," said Roger Daniels, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati and author of several books on American immigration policy and history. "There were 'argumentative Jews' and 'noisy Italians.' ... The newcomers are never like the ones that we've learned how to accommodate."

Hmong immigrants from Laos faced religious conflicts when they began arriving in the Twin Cities in the late 1970s. Their use of spiritual healers before medical procedures upset some doctors, and their practice of sacrificing animals (including dogs, pigs and chickens) during home religious ceremonies ran afoul of some local laws.

Yet disputes involving Hmong immigrants have been less publicized and have largely not interfered with their daily work life.

The Somali experience is closest to that of Orthodox Jews at the turn of the century, said Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Jews also had distinctive food taboos ("kosher" only), clothing (women wore wigs to cover their hair) and their own schedule of religious holidays.

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.

And many of the more publicized disputes in the area -- including Target cashiers who declined to scan pork and cabdrivers refusing to transport passengers with alcohol -- never made it to an EEOC filing.

"After 9/11, there was a growing sense among Muslims that they had to stand together, at least to oppose unjustified actions," said Thomas Berg, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.

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.

"Imagine that a person comes coming from that environment is suddenly subjected to all these regulations and rules" in the workplace, he said. "He may think these are an intrusion to the freedom that he had at home. He's not afraid to take a stand."

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.

In 2005, 16 workers at Celestica's circuit-board manufacturing plant in Arden Hills were fired or suspended for taking unauthorized breaks at sunset. The changing Islamic prayer schedule was a key reason.

Faysal Haliye, 43, a Somali refugee and former Celestica employee, said he was heading to the company's prayer room -- a room where each day for two years he dutifully prayed toward Mecca -- when a manager stood near the entrance and ordered him to return to his post as a machine operator.

"I had been praying my whole life and wanted to continue praying my whole life," he said. "No one had ever told me not to [pray] before."

Haliye and 22 other workers have since filed a class action lawsuit against Celestica, accusing the company of religious discrimination. The suit is pending.

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.

And Hassan had to cut short an interview to meet an imam to discuss the situation, along with the five other workers from the Mission plant.

Another key difference with Somalis is that many of them have vague hopes of returning to their country one day when the fighting stops and thus may see assimilation as less of a priority than those who intend to settle down, Sheikhosman added.

"When a Somali goes home, he knows the first question he will be asked is whether he's been Americanized," he said. "Your mother and your brother will want to know if you're still praying five times a day."

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."

Even so, the notion that Somalis are somehow predisposed to resist authority strikes Mary Marsden, owner of Marsden Building Maintenance, a janitorial firm in St. Paul, as absurd.

About 300 of Marsden's 1,600 employees in the Twin Cities are immigrants from East Africa nations such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Yet after more than two decades of employing Somalis, Marsden can count the number of disputes on one hand.

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.

Marsden's biggest concern was how clients would react when they came upon Muslim janitors kneeling for prayer -- particularly in the heightened climate of anxiety after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To prevent surprises, Marsden has assigned prayer spaces at many of its work sites.

"They are very loyal workers," Marsden said. "We wouldn't employ them unless it made good business sense."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

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