Amid chants of “Hear our voice,” a group of about 100 Somali-American workers and their supporters marched to the entrance of Amazon’s Shakopee fulfillment center Friday evening to protest what they called unfair working conditions.
The rally, held at the height of the busy holiday season, condemned what the protesters called a lack of diverse leadership, unequal wages and how the online retail giant manages productivity at its largest Minnesota facility.
“The head of Amazon [Jeff Bezos] doesn’t know who his workers are or what they’re faced with,” employee Khadra Hassan said through an interpreter. “We are not getting what we need from Amazon.”
Hassan joined the company while three months pregnant and said she nearly lost her baby as the result of an on-the-job injury. She passed out while lifting boxes in the heat one day, she said, and started bleeding. When she reported to Amazon’s health office for assistance, Hassan said she was denied services because her benefits hadn’t kicked in yet.
Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said she was unaware of that situation, but that the company takes the allegation seriously. However, she disputed the claim that full-time employees don’t immediately have access to medical care.
“Everyone gets full comprehensive health insurance starting from day one,” Robinson said. “And we have upward mobility. They’re pretty great jobs and we’re proud of our record.”
The rally followed multiple meetings between Amazon management and leaders in the Twin Cites’ East African immigrant community, who have said employees fear for their jobs and feel uneasy about religious accommodation.
Several protesters have called for dedicated prayer spaces at Amazon (20-minute prayer breaks are paid).
Amazon’s 885,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Shakopee employs more than 1,500 workers — about 30 percent of whom are East African immigrants. Robinson acknowledged that the growing company needs more than four or five Somali-speaking managers and pledged that Amazon is actively recruiting more from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
On Friday, dozens of police officers lined Amazon’s front entrance until the peaceful protest retreated to the street. No one was arrested.
Hamza Hajji, of Bloomington, briefly watched the rally on his way into work for the evening shift. He outwardly dismissed colleagues’ claims of unfair compensation and unsafe working conditions.
“These protesters don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Hajji, a Mankato State University student who makes about $19 an hour, a wage he considers fair for seasonal supply work.
But incoming U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., praised participants for raising their voices and standing up to management.
“People who are going to receive those [holiday] gifts — the packages you are putting together — need to know that every worker here is not fully happy,” she said. “Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work.”