ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Meatpacking plants commonly employ new immigrants, and for many years, that has mostly meant Hispanic workers. As recent raids have emptied plants of illegal immigrants, companies are hiring legal immigrants from other parts of the world. In Greeley, Colorado, the JBS Swift meatpacking plant is employing Somali refugees who are Muslim. And as we'll hear from Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee, that has resulted in some conflicts over religious freedom.
MEGAN VERLEE: Somali women in bright robes and head scarves and men in skull caps are trickling in to the community center in Greeley. They're here to discuss their options after being fired from the nearby meatpacking plant for insisting the company give them time to pray at sunset during the month-long holiday of Ramadan. Farhia Abdi is one of these workers.
FARHIA ABDI: When everybody went on break, they said nobody can go to break.
VERLEE: A slender young woman in traditional dress with an ever ringing cell phone, Abdi says the company originally agreed to move the breaks to accommodate Muslim workers, but after a few days changed its mind.
ABDI: They closed the bathrooms. They taped the water fountains, and they said, whoever was going on break to pray, they said, give me your badge and get out of here. You're fired.
VERLEE: Abdi says a half dozen workers lost their jobs that day. A hundred or so more were fired when they skipped work in subsequent days to protest the company's policy. Swift officials are not talking. But in a statement, the company says the walkout violated workers' contracts. Abdi seems to find the whole conflict, well, un-American.
ABDI: As far as I know, in this country, it's freedom of speech, freedom of religion, you know. And this plant, what they're telling us that you can't practice your own religion.
VERLEE: This is not an isolated incident. Scores of workers of a Swift plant in Nebraska were fired this September in a nearly identical dispute. But at least two other field plants have recently reached agreements with their Muslim employees over Ramadan breaks.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union represents employees in many of these factories. UFCW spokesman Jim Papian says his organization has seen a spike of African workers joining the union in the past 14 months, due recently for their religious needs to be included in work place contracts.
JIM PAPIAN: We don't really know all of the ins and outs of what we need to identify in terms of accommodations, what we need to identify in terms of breaks. How do we meld the needs of one particular element of the workforce with the needs of another element? And I think that's going to be a work in progress for a little while.
VERLEE: And that seems to be at least part of the problem in Greeley, the needs of one group versus the needs of another on the same plant floor. Standing outside the meatpacking plant, worker Jaime Iglera says he was mad when the company first moved the evening break to accommodate his Muslim coworkers. And he wasn't alone. Many of the plant's workers demonstrated against the change.
JAIME IGLERA: All the Hispanics and all the whites and all that came and did a riot over here, then the news came on and everything.
VERLEE: Workers like Iglera seem to be getting a lot of sympathy in town. Stacey Frennel and Sandy Hunter are hanging out on a porch a few miles from the factory.
STACEY FRENNEL: They came to the United States, and they should kind of go by how it goes here and you know what I mean.
SANDY HUNTER: The rest of us can't do that at our jobs. I don't get time off to go do prayer service. And we don't get Sundays off to go to church, not everybody does, you know.
VERLEE: Actually, in some cases, courts have supported Christians seeking time for prayer. But there aren't many rulings on Muslim cases yet, so these Somali workers, if they go to court, could set a president in that area.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSLIM PRAYER)
VERLEE: Greeley's mosque is a small unmarked building on the edge of downtown. Evening prayers echo from a loud speaker in the women's area, where Fardosa Ali has spent the afternoon proofreading unemployment forms filled out by fired workers. She herself is still on suspension from the plant. Ali says when a supervisor told her she could be fired for praying, it was an easy choice.
FARDOSA ALI: He told me if you pray, we're going to fire you today. I told him, that's OK, sending me home, that's no problem. But my prayer is more important than work.
VERLEE: Ali's union is filing grievances for the fired workers. And the Somalis are in the first steps of putting together a class action lawsuit against the company. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee.
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