Islam’s requirement of five daily prayers is an ancient ritual that begins before sunrise and ends in the evening, preceded each time by a purifying washing of head, face, hands and feet. It has run straight into the most merciless of modern innovations: the disassembly line that processes more than 1 million head of cattle a year at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in Fort Morgan, Colo.
In this instance, it appears that each side has tried to accommodate the other. The Cargill prayer room is used daily by what the company says are more than 400 Somali-American employees — one quarter of the workers at Fort Morgan. Cargill’s outreach to local community colleges has resulted in onsite classes in English, citizenship and computer skills for the predominantly immigrant workforce. Cargill has promoted Muslims into supervisory positions on the line. Those efforts are laudable.
Muslim workers, for their part, have adapted to the exacting standards of the line, where no motion or moment can be wasted. They’ve stretched prayer windows as far as possible, keeping worship brief and going individually or in very small groups to minimize disruptions. Many have worked hard to juggle the values they came with and those of the society in which they now find themselves.
Yet Cargill now finds itself in a high-profile conflict, picked up in headlines worldwide, over its decision to fire 150 Muslim workers who left the job in protest over a supervisor’s decision not to accommodate 11 workers who sought time for evening prayer on the plant’s second shift. Cargill spokesman Mike Martin says the workers were not fired for seeking to pray, but for failing to report to work for three days.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We’re a global company. We celebrate diversity. We think it’s a strength. We’ve worked hard to provide religious accommodations and the overwhelming majority of requests are granted, but we have to do it as staffing permits. We can’t accommodate every request in every shift.”
Jaylani Hussein, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota, said he shares Martin’s frustration. “We’re still confident Cargill is a good company,” he said. “They have many Muslim employees and have accommodated them.” In this case, he said, the 11 employees had spent an hour and a half individually pleading for a few minutes in which to complete evening prayers and had been denied.
It’s unclear exactly what transpired between the foreman and the workers. But there is much to learn from this incident, as Minnesota and the country adjust to an era in which diversity will require accommodation not just for new languages and customs, but for different values, cultures and a religion that remains unfamiliar to many Americans.
There is a glimmer of possible reconciliation among the parties at Fort Morgan. Martin says the company is considering modifying its rehire policy to make it easier for those fired to reapply in fewer than the prescribed six months. “This is not something we wanted to see happen,” he said. Hussein says many of the workers who have come to him just want their jobs back and some assurance that, in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, they will be allowed to pray. “These people are reasonable,” he said. “They are not looking for trouble.” Both sides should work hard to pursue a rapprochement.
Clashes and gaps in understanding will come up again as we grapple with coming demographic changes. In Minnesota, as in other parts of the country, the white working-age population is falling even as young immigrant populations are rising — a trend expected to accelerate as baby boomers retire. The country will need the energy and renewal that immigrants bring — and have always brought. The changes required on all sides won’t be easy.
But that very struggle is part of what contributes to this nation’s vitality, its relentless drive toward the new. America will change the wave of immigrants settling here. And they will change America. We’ll all be better for it.