MUSLIM Amazon workers fear they will be fired from a Minneapolis distribution centre for taking prayer breaks.
Because of strict packing quotas, set at 240 boxes an hour, practicing Muslims are struggling to pray five times a day at the giant retailer’s Shakopee fulfillment centre, say employees.
Amazon denied the claims and insisted workers were given a paid prayer break of less than 20 minutes and could take unpaid prayer breaks for longer.
A statement also said productivity expectations would be altered if people chose to take the unpaid breaks and insisted “we work hard every day to ensure all of our employees are treated fairly and with dignity and respect”.
Last Friday a group of Amazon workers – Somali refugees living in Minnesota – demanded better working conditions during a protest outside the warehouse.
News agency AFP said that dozens braved freezing temperatures to demonstrate in Shakopee, which is home to a sizeable Somali immigrant population from which Amazon has heavily recruited.
East African immigrants make up the majority of the workforce at the massive warehouse.
Abdulkadir Ahmad, 30, told AFP: “We don’t have rights in the company.”
The employees, many of whom are practising Muslims, said the required productivity rate was too high.
They also complained that the company was unconcerned about worker injuries and that their work conditions don’t allow practising Muslims to pray as they otherwise would.
Ahmad added: “We do not have enough time to pray. There is a lot of pressure. They say your rate is too low.”
Khadra Ibhrahin, 28, a mum-of-two, told Vox she could not easily take prayer breaks as the warehouse’s current packing rate is 240 boxes an hour – a figure which jumps to 400 depending on demand.
She said staff were penalised if they fell behind the required rate, adding that taking breaks “make our rate slow down, and then we’d be at risk of getting fired.
“So most of the time we choose prayer over bathroom, and have learned to balance our bodily needs.
“Every time I walk through those doors, I am filled with this dread that tonight is going to be the night that I get fired.”
The workers timed their protest during the busy holiday shopping season, hoping to force the online retailer to make changes.
They already have had some success, most significantly in holding two meetings with management.
The New York Times reported that it was the first known instance of any group succeeding in forcing Amazon to negotiate.
The publication also said that Amazon has made “compromises” in Minneapolis, for example requiring a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity rates.
Activist Abdi Muse told AFP: “We are appreciative they’ve sat down and talked with us, but we are not seeing real action.”
Muse is the executive director of the Awood Center, a union-backed non-profit that organised the protest and helps East African workers in the state.
The union-backed organisation said of the protest on Facebook: “What a powerful show of unity and power!
“As we chanted tonight: ‘The people, united, will never be defeated!”
Amazon told Vox that “prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and productivity expectations are not adjusted for such breaks.
“[Workers] are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.”
A company spokesperson added: “We work hard every day to ensure all of our employees are treated fairly and with dignity and respect, including here in Minnesota where we have an open and direct dialogue with employees.
“Amazon offers a great employment opportunity with excellent pay – ranging here from $16.25-$20.80 an hour, and comprehensive benefits including health care, up to 20 weeks parental leave, paid education, promotional opportunities, and more.
“[We] encourage anyone to compare our pay, benefits, and workplace to other retailers and major employers in the Shakopee community and across the country.
“We invite anyone to see for themselves and take a tour through our fulfillment centre tour programme.”
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The retail giant has faced past complaints from warehouse employees about working conditions.
It has more than 75 “fulfillment centres” across the US, where merchandise is packaged and shipped.
The centres employ more than 125,000 full-time employees, according to Amazon.
Bloomberg reported this week that warehouse workers in New York have announced plans to unionise.