The Somali refugee community of Colorado has struggled with cultural conflict for years, transitioning from life in war zone to homesteading in Middle America. But now a surprisingly quiet cultural quirk has come between them and their new livelihood: a prayer.
Just before Christmas, about 180 Muslim workers were abruptly fired by a Cargill beef processing plant over a dispute about prayer at work. After clashing with management over what workers described as an sudden change in the enforcement of workplace prayer rules, the workers, mostly Somalis, stopped work on December 18 after sundown prayer time. They were dismissed on December 21. And Fort Morgan, Colorado, became the latest flashpoint in the converging national debates over civil, religious, and labor rights.
Cargill, which employs more than 2,000 local workers, insisted it had exhausted all “reasonable” attempts to provide fair accommodation for Muslim prayers, which are generally conducted five times throughout the day. Spokesperson Mike Martin told the Fort Morgan Times that Cargill was adhering to established policies on prayer time. But the Muslim workers say it was in fact their supervisors who had arbitrarily flouted longstanding procedures for accommodating workplace prayer.
According to Jaylani Hussein, spokesperson for the Council American Islamic Relations (CAIR), supervisors told workers, “If you want to pray, go home.” So workers called the boss’s bluff; 160 workers reportedly did not come to work, and “fewer than 20” walked out, with another ten resigning.
Cargill worker Hamza Hussein told Fort Morgan Times, “Prayer is our first priority…. We are Muslim. We’re not going to work for them if we can’t pray.”
Under the regular policy, the Somali workers would find time to pray during paid or unpaid breaks. Though intervals of prayer times vary seasonally, prayer sessions were typically staggered to accommodate the plant’s operations. Last month, according to local news reports, the workers said they were repeatedly met with hostility or threats from supervisors when requesting prayer breaks.