Somali women score victory for Amazon workers

A protest by Somali workers in Minneapolis has brought retail giant Amazon to the negotiating table.

Somali women packers for the Amazon distribution center in Minneapolis are fired up and refusing to speed up the production line, becoming the first known group to defy Amazon management and bring them to the bargaining table.

“Nobody would assume a Muslim worker with limited language skills in the middle of Minnesota could be a leader in a viable fight against one of the biggest employers in the world and bring them to the table,” said Abdirahman Muse, executive director of Awood, the Somali word for “power.”

But when a worker lost her job, unable to meet crushing demands to pack more and faster when she had just finished 18 days of fasting over Ramadan, frustration was shared throughout the plant.

“The new managers are like military – they don’t give you respect,” said Amazon worker Safia Ahmed Ibrahim, who once worked for the U.S. and U.N. aid groups before fleeing from Somalia to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. “I worked hard and I was employee of the month.”

But after returning from breast cancer treatment, a new manager scolded Ibrahim for working slowly, seeing her only as a worker who, on one particular day, was slow.

Hibaq Mohamed said Amazon let her take paid breaks to pray, as required by state law, but her managers made her keep up with the quota.

Sixty percent of Amazon’s 3,000 workers in the region are East African, Awood estimates, but only one manager speaks Somali. Amazon disputes that number, saying there are a lot fewer East Africans, and four area managers who speak Somali.

Amazon has now agreed to require a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity, to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly, according to the New York Times.

But a group of about 40 workers say this is not enough. Their main concern – the pace at which they are expected to work; from 160 items an hour to 230 – wasn’t addressed. They voted to stage a large protest and walkout on Dec. 14, in the middle of the holiday season.

“We are not asking them to cater to East African workers,” said Muse. “We are just asking them to treat workers humanely.”

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