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Muslim Somali Workers Say They Lost Jobs for Praying at Work

Last December, JBS Swift and Company -- the world's second largest processor of beef and pork -- temporarily suspended operations when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided plants in several states. More than 250 workers at a plant in Grand Island, Nebraska were detained.
No charges were filed against JBS Swift and Company, but the loss of its employees led to increased recruiting efforts to ease the shortfall. Several hundred Somali refugees moved to Grand Island and now work at the processing plant. But as VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, hiring Muslim workers has brought new issues into the spotlight for the company.

At the Islamic Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Muslims break their fast ahead of evening prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

It is a religious obligation for Muslims during the holiest period in their faith. It is an observance that Mohammad Rage says JBS Swift prevents its Somali Muslim workers in Grand Island, Nebraska from following. "When they see Somalian women, or Somalian men leaving the line, they would prevent them from doing so, and say that the work is going on and you have to keep on working. We don't pay you to pray, we pay you to work."

Rage, who is also Somali, is acting as an advocate for an estimated 400 workers in Grand Island. At one of two Somali-owned restaurants in this town of 45,000 people, he listens to their concerns.

Ali Shira says he initially believed JBS Swift understood the needs of Muslim workers. "All of a sudden it just started to change. They said, 'Either you work here, or you give us the badge and leave. We're not going to let you pray'." Shira says he felt a moral obligation to continue practicing his evening prayers, which ultimately led to his dismissal.

JBS Swift and Company declined to be interviewed on camera for this story, but issued a written statement to Voice of America which reads:

"JBS Swift & Company does everything it can to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of its employees. In addition, we do not condone or tolerate any discrimination or harassment of any sort. Specifically, we are working closely with the Center for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to find a prayer solution for our Muslim employees that adequately addresses everyone's interests."

"It's a very short break," says Rima Kapitan who is an attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, in Chicago.

Earlier this year, CAIR submitted a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of the Somali workers in Grand Island. It includes testimony from more than 40 of those workers who claim they were verbally and physically harassed for praying.

CAIR continues to appeal to the company to allow Muslim workers short breaks to pray. "Workers are permitted bathroom breaks anyway, so it's not like they would be treated differently. It would be akin to a bathroom break," Kapitan said.

JBS Swift maintains it has not terminated any employees for their religious beliefs or practices, including praying in the workplace.

Kapitan says she hopes to reach an out of court settlement with the company.

"Initially they said that any break would be an undue burden on the company. Then recently we had an encouraging letter from them in response to our suggestions, adapting them in part or proposing they adapt them in part. They proposed to move the break time for all workers."

Ali Shira is now employed at a plant in a neighboring town, where he says he is allowed to observe his religious customs. He says his experience with JBS Swift is causing him to doubt religious freedom in the United States. "We were given an orientation before we were brought here about the United States Constitution, and we never thought this would happen to us. We were told there was freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of practices."