Three Somali-American women working in Shakopee are accusing Amazon of violating their civil rights by passing over East African workers for promotion and failing to accommodate Muslim employees' religious needs.

In their complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the women — all of whom were anonymous for fear of retaliation — also charge the retail giant with retaliating against workers who protested workplace discrimination, according to a news release from Muslim Advocates, a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group representing the women.

The conditions described in the charges show a "broader pattern of unlawful discrimination" against Muslim, Somali, and East African workers at Amazon, according to the letter that Muslim Advocates sent to the EEOC.

The three employees claim they weren't given the space or time to take prayer breaks. They said they stopped taking bathroom and prayer breaks because they worried about being written up for not meeting packing quotas, which could ultimately result in termination.

In an e-mail provided to the Star Tribune by Muslim Advocates, one of the three women explained the toll that working at Amazon had taken on her.

"The treatment and harassment I've experienced at Amazon has given me nightmares and caused me to break down," she wrote. "It's definitely affecting me mentally."

Nimra Azmi, a staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, said Muslim workers "who want to take a moment to perform obligatory prayer fear — genuinely fear — taking that time because they think they'll fall below their [packing] rates."

"Amazon is a vast and sophisticated company," she added. "… I think they should be able to craft a solution that allows their workers to not only perform as well as possible but also meet their religious obligations."

Working at Amazon is especially challenging during Ramadan, when workers must abstain from drinking or eating for up to 19 hours, Azmi said. When it's time to end their fast, the workers are afraid to take a break because they might fall behind on their quotas.

In addition, the women allege that white workers were given chances for promotion beyond the level of shipment packer, while qualified black Muslim workers instead received tougher job assignments.

This created a "discriminatory, two-tiered system" at the warehouse, Muslim Advocates said, since management is nearly all white.

"The women do believe it's important to have managers who are Somali, East African or Muslim who can better convey the issues that are experienced by the Somali workers on the ground," Azmi said.

Brenda Alfred, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement that the company doesn't discuss complaints publicly.

"Diversity and inclusion is central to our business and company culture and associates can pray whenever they choose," Alfred said. "We encourage anyone to compare Amazon's pay, benefits, and workplace to other retailers and to come take a tour and see firsthand."

Amazon also said that short prayer breaks (under 20 minutes) are paid, and that workers can ask for longer unpaid prayer breaks.

Workers at the southwest metro facility — a fulfillment center that employs more than 1,500 people — have previously protested over discrimination and working conditions, the latter a complaint made by Amazon employees at other locations across the country.

After taking part in one such protest in December, the women said managers began harassing them in retaliation. The harassment included harder assignments, packing heavier items, and more supervision. One woman alleges that she had "conversations repeatedly video recorded" while all three have received "improper write-ups," according to the letter to the EEOC.

"The charges show that Amazon's message to Somali workers has been clear: Since they protested Amazon's discriminatory actions, Amazon management would now create an environment so harassing and hostile that they would be forced to quit," the letter said.

One of the three women did quit in December, Azmi said, after the job became so difficult that she felt she had no other choice. But most of the women need their jobs and want to keep them, Azmi said. "They want Amazon to be a place that they can thrive as Muslim Somali women," she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781