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Associated Press – August 16, 2009
OMAHA, Nebraska – Officials at a Grand Island meatpacking plant say they’re taking steps to prevent a repeat of last year when a Muslim prayer dispute set off protests that led to mass firings.
With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan beginning Aug. 22, JBS Swift & Co. officials, Muslim Somali advocates and union representatives say they’re trying to accommodate workers who want to pray at sunset. The plan also is focused on minimizing disruption at the plant.
“We have come to a place where Somalians are better off,” said Yasin Ali, who leads the recently organized Nebraska Somali Community Association, based in Grand Island.
Hundreds of Muslim workers walked off the job and picketed in protest last September, saying they wanted time to pray at sunset and break a daylong fast. Plant management responded the next day by adjusting the work schedule to accommodate them. That fueled a counterprotest in which other workers walked off the job, arguing Muslim workers were given preferential treatment. Management then ended the accommodations, which sent Muslim workers back to the picket lines.
The company fired 86 workers for walking off the job. It eventually hired back about a dozen.
“I think a lot of people went in last year sort of flying a little blind,” said JBS spokesman Chandler Keys. “Everyone got their eyes opened.”
Talks have been under way since last year to understand what the workers want and need, Keys said. The company remains committed to continuing that dialogue, he added.
He declined to discuss details of any arrangement.
Company officials have said they will try to make meeting rooms available for prayer and an end-of-Ramadan celebration, said Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Such a celebration would likely be similar to ones held at the plant for Cinco de Mayo and other cultural events, he added.
Hoppes said he hoped that the fact that Ramadan comes a few weeks earlier this year, meaning later sunsets, also will help. Sunset and a union-sanctioned evening break will fall within about 30 minutes of each other as opposed to the 60- to 90-minute gap seen last year, he said. Last year, Muslim workers asked to move the break closer to sunset to pray and break their fast.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast daily from sunrise to sunset.
Ali said he believes Muslim plant employees can work with that, or at least he’s encouraging them to.
Prayer breaks are not included in the workers’ contract. They stand to be among the points discussed when negotiations begin in January on the new contract, Hoppes said.
The tensions over prayer time have been building since 2007. That was when East Africans began filling the gaps left after a 2006 immigration raid cleared illegal Hispanic workers from the plant.
The need for accommodations in the workplace peaks during Ramadan, advocates say.
Not counting management, the plant employs about 2,700 workers, Hoppes said; about 250 of those are Muslim. Last fall, he estimated some 500 Muslim employees worked at the plant.
Seventy-one people filed complaints against JBS Swift following last year’s dispute alleging discrimination, Hoppes said. The complaints are pending at the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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