Alan talks with Rima Kapitan, an attorney who is advocating for Somali Muslim workers that were fired for praying on the job.
ALAN: Tell me what’s going on.
RIMA: Well basically, there are hundreds of workers at the Grand Island plant, and they’re being denied the right to pray. They, the workers are given two breaks normally, however, at this time of year, because sunset is later in the day, the breaks do not coincide with the time for prayer, and so workers have requested just a short break to leave their production line and pray, and the company is denying them that.
ALAN: Apparently 44 workers who did sign a complaint…
RIMA: Actually, 44 workers have signed an agreement, signed a release for us to be able to represent them, but there are about ten now who are about to file a complaint, and that number could grow.
ALAN: Alright, now what are some of the accusations here, because one of them is claiming, Jama Mohamed is saying that he was fired from the production line to pray, people are claiming they had their prayer mats taken away from them, things like that.
RIMA: Right, there are all kinds of things happening like that because there are so many supervisors, and each worker has a unique complaint, but some workers are being harassed when they’re in the restroom praying. One female worker complains that male supervisors are coming into the bathroom, sometimes supervisors are physically preventing workers from praying, even. A few have even been fired; we have three confirmations of workers being fired, but workers say that there are several others who have also –
ALAN: But what is the company saying, ‘cause they won’t – as you heard not too long ago – agree to permit themselves to come here, or talk with you and me, so what are they telling you?
RIMA: Right, well we’re actually in the midst of negotiations with the company, so it’s not over yet. There are two things going on: there are the individual complaints, and we haven’t began the negotiations on those, but more broadly we’re trying to negotiate for the rights of all the Muslim employees to be able to pray. And so two things we’ve suggested to the company, and we’re still waiting for a response, our first is the breaks simply be shifted for all workers, in other words, instead of having a break at 6:30, how about moving it to 8, and as far as I can tell, that would still be in compliance with the union agreement. So, I don’t see why that would be any kind of an inconvenience for the company, or any of the other workers.
ALAN: What about those who were fired, dismissed? I mean, what recourse do they have?
RIMA: Well, they can always file claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is what some of them are going to do. Three of them are about to do that. And, basically, it’s a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, that they’ve been discriminated against because of their religion.
ALAN: What about the accusations that a new contract is asking employees to sign something agreeing not to pray at that company?
RIMA: Yeah, as I understand it, the agreement says that workers are not supposed to pray at any time in the company. However, I haven’t actually seen one of those agreements because the workers haven’t been given copies. We’re trying to get a copy of the agreement.
ALAN: Now, ask the audience if they want to participate. Our number is 1-877-FOR-ALAN, or 367-2526. Should these Muslims be given an accommodation by this or any other company for that matter? ‘Cause this could set precedent, right?
RIMA: Right, and actually it’s my understanding that there are other companies who have given – meatpacking companies, even Tyson – has apparently given Muslim workers the right to pray.
ALAN: And this issue is specifically significant because of the fact that it is Muslims, and I often hear a lot of anti-Muslim bigotry on our phone lines from our audience. I witness, I get a lot of hateful e-mail, people who believe that Muslims are terrorists, they should be thrown out of the country, all the mosques contain people conspiring to kill us… If you had a Christian group wanting to pray, I don’t think you’d have this problem.
RIMA: Yeah, well I would hope not. There have been religious accommodation cases involving Christians as well, so sometimes there are conflicts that arise with Christians. The Christians are also protected under Title VII.
ALAN: Right, but I mean, is the attitude about this, I wonder, either by the company or by anybody else, different because it’s Muslims, not Jews, not Christians, not those who are perceived as more mainstream, in spite of the fact that Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions including inside the United States.
RIMA: Absolutely, I mean I think that there’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, and Muslims are often viewed in this country as “The Other,” Muslims are just like anybody else. They’re people, and they should be viewed as such and treated just like everybody else. So yes, I think that is contributing here.
ALAN: How many Muslims work at Swift, do you know?
RIMA: I’ve heard a couple numbers, the workers say there are about 400.
ALAN: And now the others – are only a small percentage, about 44 plus complaining – what about the other hundreds of workers?
RIMA: It’s simply a matter of getting in touch with them. There’s a language barrier, and our intermediary lives in Omaha, which is still two hours away from Grand Island, so it’s just a matter of getting in touch with everybody.
ALAN: Right, do you believe this is anti-Muslim bigotry on the part of the company?
RIMA: I do, I do.
ALAN: Let’s go to Dave in Abilene, Texas. So, what do you say, Dave?
CALLER: Yeah, uh, I don’t believe they should have a right to pray at work – there’s a time to work and a time to pray. They keep their praying in their mosques and churches whether religions or Muslims. It’s getting ridiculous.
ALAN: Well, what if you’re a Jew? You know, Jews pray at certain times of the day, too. If you’re an Orthodox Jew you pray at sundown. Should the same thing apply to Jews?
CALLER: That should apply to all religions. There’s a time for work and a time to play. If we start accommodating all this religious stuff, then your prices of all your products and services are gonna keep going up, and it’s gotta stop somewhere.
ALAN: Uh, what do you say, Rima? What do you say, counselor, to that?
RIMA: Well, I think that it’s a very American thing to allow people to pray, our constitution guarantees freedom of expression of religion, and it’s in the first amendment, which is, you know, arguably the most important amendment, so…
ALAN: Well, does the first amendment, though, say anything? It says the freedom… it says the government should not get involved in religion, and the government should be religion-neutral, but does it say anything in the first amendment about a right to pray in a job or in any other situation? This isn’t a government-owned business, either. How would the constitution figure into this?
RIMA: Right, well, I’m simply making the point that it’s a very American concept. The constitution actually isn’t neutral on religion, it doesn’t say that the government should be completely neutral, it guarantees the right to express religion.