A Cargill beef processing plant in Fort Morgan, Colo. has fired nearly 200 Somali Muslims who walked off the job last week in a dispute over the company’s accommodations of their prayer rituals.
The workers’ complaints were vague, but seemed to center on the amount of space and time that Cargill had made available for them to pray at the meat plant, which is located in northeast Colorado. Devout Muslims pray five times a day.
More than 200 workers, mostly Muslims from Somalia, either walked off the job before the second shift was set to begin at the plant on Dec. 21 or failed to show up to work the next day in protest of what they claimed were Cargill’s new, restrictive policies.
Jaylani Hussein, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group that is representing more than 100 of the workers in the dispute, claims that the workers were told on Dec. 18: “If you want to pray, go home.”
After the employees failed to show up to work for three days, Cargill fired them, in keeping with the company’s policies.
Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said that the plant could not facilitate a large prayer facility without disrupting operations. He also disputed that any of the workers were told that if they wanted to pray that they should go home.
“Cargill plant supervisors have been very clear that such a statement was never made,” Martin told The Daily Caller, adding that Cargill’s policies regarding religious accommodation “have not changed.”
He said that the plant has had a designated “reflection area” since 2009. The area can accommodate a small number of people at one time. Employees typically pray during their 15-minute shift breaks or during their 30-minute lunch period.
But Hussein maintained that the workers believed that the policy regarding prayer had effectively changed.
“To these employees, that is what it is,” Hussein told The Denver Post. “Maybe Cargill never changed its policy, but to these employees, they feel whatever the policy is, or how it is implemented, there was a change put in place.”
Martin maintains that Cargill, which has headquarters in Wichita, Kan., has accommodated its employees as much as possible given its business constraints.
“Cargill makes every reasonable attempt to provide religious accommodation to all employees based on our ability to do so without disruption to our beef processing business at Fort Morgan,” Martin said.
He did add that accommodation is not guaranteed every day and is dependent on a number of work-related factors which can — and do — change from day to day.
But “this has been clearly communicated to all employees,” Martin insisted.
According to Martin, multiple attempts were made to discuss the prayer situation with the workers. The employees’ representatives, management and representatives with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters held a meeting the day after the initial walkout at the request of plant managers. A deal was not reached, and the devout workers declined to show up to work the following day.
According to The Post, some workers returned to work before being fired, but a majority held out as CAIR attempted to negotiate for them.
More than 600 Somalis worked at the meat packing plant before the layoffs. The facility employs more than 2,000 people.
Hussain did not respond to TheDC’s requests for additional comment.