Yesterday, we investigated the failure of Nebraska’s fiftieth out of fifty Safe Haven law to protect teenagers from dumping by misbegotten parents.  Today, we learn about another Midwestern mudfest flinging scorn and rage against Somali Muslims who wish to say evening prayers during work hours at a Grand Island, Nebraska meatpacking plant.  So far 86 people have been fired in this face off between commerce and religion.

Nebraska is curdling under the weight of a lack of a native work force, and the “foreign imports” bring their own beliefs and value systems to the high prairies and the low plains:

On Monday, hundreds of Muslim employees walked off the job, saying they weren’t being allowed to take a break to pray during Ramadan. Break times were then altered on the second shift so that Muslim employees could make their fourth of five daily prayers at sunset. 

Then hundreds of non-Muslim workers walked off the job in counterprotests Wednesday and Thursday. Later Thursday, plant managers did an about-face, saying the new break times weren’t working.

Should Muslim meatpacking workers be allowed to pray five times a day as required by their religion?

What if Christian workers wanted to break out in song five times a day while working the line?

Can we ever allow religion to break the back of business or must businesses bend with tradition and serve the closely held beliefs of its workforce?

If people choose to take five prayer breaks a day instead of grabbing five smoking breaks a day — should that matter?  Or is the spirit of the break what matters most to the employer?

Grand Island isn’t the only city dealing with Muslim morality in the workplace:

• In Greeley, 220 workers walked off the job early this month, saying they weren’t being allowed to pray just after sunset. More than 100 were later fired. 

• Chicken processor Gold’n Plump Inc. recently settled a lawsuit with nine Muslim employees of its Cold Spring, Minn., plant. The workers said they were required to handle pork, against their religious teachings, and that the company did not accommodate their prayer schedule.

• An uproar in Shelbyville, Tenn., went national in August after a Tyson Foods chicken plant and a labor union agreed to replace Labor Day as a paid holiday with a Muslim holiday.

A majority of the plant’s 1,200 workers — including 700 Muslims, 250 of them Somalis — wanted the contract change. The plant later reinstated Labor Day as a paid holiday and allowed a personal day to be used for Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

• At Mission Foods in New Brighton, Minn., six Somali Muslim women were dismissed from a tortilla factory in August for refusing to wear required uniforms. The women said the pants and shirts were immodest and a violation of their religion.

Complaints of religion-based employment discrimination are on the rise. The total number, from people of all religions, grew from 3,124 in 1997 to 4,489 in 2007, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Complaints from Muslim workers more than doubled in that decade, from 389 to 909.

Somali Muslims aren’t the only workers having trouble digging their living values in dry soil.

Iowa has its own meatpacking problems as a recent immigration raid — the largest raid in the history of our nation — held 700 warrants that ended in the arrest of 400 “undocumented” workers charged with identity theft.

Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the nation, lost 75% of its workforce in that raid — as well as 10% of the population of Potsville, Iowa — and three shifts a day were cut down to one.

Potsville is still trying to recover from the financial bombing of their biggest employer and the decimation of their tax base in what many now claim was a Racist Immigration raid made to grab headlines and set a political agenda that ended up ruining an entire town.

We live in perilous times in America because the landed foreigner and the laboring immigrant are at once repudiated and then held close in an attempt to reconcile homogeny against prejudice and lawlessness against basic business needs.

The Midwest is a flat, cold and barren place to exist.  Few find life there and fewer local teenagers want to work for $15.00USD an hour.  The kids want more money for less work and so many choose the university or the California sunshine instead of the traditional mud-and-blood-collar jobs of farming and the factory line.  As the world gets smaller, opportunities expand.

So who is left to fill the line cook job in the local diner and the slaughterhouse line at the meatpacking plant?  There’s work to be done and money to be made, but there aren’t enough locals left to fill the vacant jobs.

You import workers.  You negotiate held beliefs with work schedules.  You bus in immigrants that may or may not have the proper documentation, but they all have the obvious desire to work and to get paid a decent living wage.

You look the other way.  You shrug a bit.  You try to get the work done before the end of the day just to keep the lines moving and the paychecks flying and the local economy bustling.

Then forces beyond your control — divinity, devotion and the Department of Homeland Security — clamber into town wearing headscarves and flashing badges, and your toes get stepped on, and the dreams of the same sort of foreign labor workforce that once built this great nation are crushed and handcuffed, and you wonder where it all went so wrong and how the hatred of the world found you to smother you with a righteous indignation you never served or earned.

18 Comments

  1. I think you’re right about the economy only getting worse, Anne. I don’t think we’ve felt the tip of the spear yet and it’s being sharpened right in front of us for the stabbing in our backs.
    I agree $15 an hour is a fine wage — but if there are not enough people in the area to fill the jobs what do you do as an employer? Shut down? Move?
    The easiest way is to import — to immigrate/entragate/intrastate willing bodies wherever you can find them — even Somalia and Mexico! We need to make this whole process of economic expansion easier for workers to work their jobs and for employers to document them and the government to tax their wages and help make money all around!

  2. Mu uncle works in Bechtel International in UAE, though it is an American concern – these prayer brakes are mandatory for everybody, regardless of religion.
    Someone from a different religious background doesn’t have to join the prayer – but he/she can’t work.
    I personally prefer things to be “uni” outside my own bedroom.
    I might want to pray 100 times a day – but I can’t impose my “demand” on others.

  3. I appreciate that insight, Katha, and I think it makes great sense: Build “personal time” into the work day and then let the workers do what they need as they must. It’s their time to spend.
    It was disappointing to read that the Nebraska meatpacking factory did the right thing and allowed them prayer time until the other non-Muslim workers bellyached about it being an unfair advantage and then the company buckled and recanted their right decision. Business is no place for cowardice.

  4. I know it makes us human David!
    It also means I am sleepy, I am tired and I am groggy and I “love me some sleep” and what not and it also makes things confusing.
    From your reply it seemed you thought I supported the “prayer party” but I didn’t…
    If today my organization starts allowing people to pray in the working hour, can I go and ask for a movie break a day?
    Some universal things should definitely be accomodated, like a nursing mother etc..
    But a prayer break? Just because my religion asks me to pray 10 times a day?
    I don’t think so…
    Another example –
    My current working place has employees from various religios background, along with lots of Muslims.
    During this September, they fast for the whole day and eat twice a day – before the sunrise and at the time of sunset.
    They eat after prayers.
    My colleagues go home early this September to join the prayer at the dusk, simply because of humanitarian ground – so that they can eat at the end of the day.
    But they do not enjoy/ claim prayer-breaks otherwise.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Katha. I did misunderstand your point.
    It does seem some jobs might preclude the ultra-observant from being hired like, say, being a policeman or a volunteer fireman or a surgeon: When duty calls, you can’t say, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes after I pray.” Lives other than yours are at stake and your delay might mean their deaths.
    As well, some jobs, like those in television and film and radio are 7 day a week gigs and you work 18 hours a day. You can’t take arbitrary breaks or say, “I don’t work on certain days of the week” or you will never be employed past the first bite. To later rationalize away the observance in favor of the paycheck is wrought with spiritual danger.
    In NYC there is a certain protection company that offers building guards for apartment houses. Most of the company employees are Pakistani and Muslim. They bring their badges and their prayer rugs to work every day and they take five, 20-minute, breaks a day to pray during their 12-18 hour shifts. The problem is when they leave their post to go and pray in private — no one is watching the door and no one is at the front desk! So security is nil and wholly predictable if you are planning something nefarious.
    The guards are not fired, though, because the contracted company can’t find anyone else to do the job for the low pay — and so the buildings are made inherently unsafe by the strict religious observation of those hired to protect access to the building.

  6. How prescient. I have an interview tomorrow and at some point I have to bring up the fact that some Fridays during the year, I will have to leave work early, that there are holidays that are sometimes during the week (especially this year) and that if they are not okay with me having off on the obligatory Jewish holidays, I bear no hard feelings towards them and will simply not be able to take the job.

  7. You have an interesting situation, Gordon. You won’t have any trouble getting the traditional Jewish holidays off with any employer anywhere in the USA — but if you hope to work in a responsible position in a mainstream, big media job, or if you have a vital tech/web/nets role — I think it might be a tougher road when you tell them you are completely shut down from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It’s good you plan to bring that up, though, because it is against the law for them to ask you — but they need to know.

  8. Absolutely right David!
    Think of a situation where I have a meeting with some CEO and I reschedule it because it clashes with my prayer time, my MCM gets delayed because of my other priorities – I am not sure if that projects a professional attitude.
    In India, all traditional holidays for all religions are considered “off”.

  9. Hi David,
    Religion is such a touchy matter, especially among immigrant populations who finding themselves in an alien society, are brought closer to each other with their religion.
    And like Katha says, in India, most organizations provide for almost all religious holidays. So believers of a particular religion can take their own special days off and come in to work on other religious holidays. And even then the major holidays of almost all religions apply across the board.

  10. Great example, Katha. If you want to have a job that is in any way critical to the health of a company, you cannot ever be unavailable and just “turn off” your life. You must always be. That’s why strict and observant religious communities go outside the mainstream job cult and create their own industry — so they can employ those that share their views and values.

  11. I do wonder, Dananjay, about people that use their religion to game what they can from the system. Students sometimes “create their own religious holidays” to get out of doing assignments or taking exams and it’s hard to argue the rules of what their specific church allows. I tried not to have to deal with that touchy matter and I always turned it over to the administration to determine if what a student was claiming was true or not to earn a “religious exemption.” More often than not the claimed holiday was nothing of the sort.

  12. I thought it might be relevant David,
    Calcutta is eagerly waiting for Durga Puja’ 08, the biggest religious festival of the region.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/22/world/asia/22India.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
    It is a five days festival, this year it starts from 5th. Oct and ends in 9th. Oct. The entire region enjoys “off” for those couple of days.
    In other parts of the world, the festival will start in the weekend; from 3rd. Oct – 5th. Oct. just because it’s convenient that way.
    http://www.kallol.com/events.php