Muslims file EEOC suits against meatpacking plants
The two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuits filed last week allege a pattern of religious and national origin discrimination and a hostile work environment at two plants - in Greeley, Colo., and Grand Island, Neb. The cases may rank among the largest Muslim discrimination lawsuits since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, unleashed a backlash against Muslims in the United States, government officials said. In the last five years through fiscal 2009, religious charges have grown 44 percent overall, and 58.4 percent for Muslim workers, according to EEOC data.
The JBS Swift cases, which involve mostly Somali refugees who joined the plants' diverse and often immigrant-based workforce, stand out not only for their size but also for their details, EEOC officials said.
"It's fairly egregious when you have your co-workers throwing bloody animal parts at you," said Justine Lisser, the EEOC's acting communications director in Washington.
"This is a case that even after 31 years of practicing law gives me the goosebumps and that chilling feeling," said Mary Jo O'Neill, EEOC regional attorney in Phoenix, who, with private counsel, represents the Colorado workers. She said the discriminatory actions continue and the case could cover hundreds of Somali Muslim workers still at the JBS Swift plants.
JBS is a "legitimate company" and "we defend ourselves vigorously," said Chandler Keys, a company spokesman who declined to discuss the lawsuits.
Complainants, however, have offered stories about their workplace experiences.
Hassan Abdi Farah, 70, worked processing meat in Greeley and said through a translator that he was given progressively more difficult assignments. Sometimes, he said, other workers threw meat and fat at him.
"It was really very bad. . . . We were abused and we also were discriminated against," he said.
When he complained to a supervisor, Farah said, he was warned not to file a complaint or he could lose his job.
The Greeley case alleges supervisors also threw animal parts at Muslim workers. In addition, workers said that they were harassed when they tried to pray during scheduled breaks and that their requests to pray during bathroom breaks were denied. The bathroom graffiti included denegrating references to Somalia, anti-Muslim language and use of the N-word.
Then in 2008, as they began their holy month of Ramadan, complainants allege, the situation escalated.
During Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast until sunset, when they then can eat and drink. Nearly 100 Muslim employees in Colorado went to the superintendent office on Sept. 2, 2008, to ask that their dinner break be moved from 9:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. for their religious observances, according to the lawsuit.
After two days of cooperation with the Ramadan dinner break, JBS Swift management changed the time to 8:30 p.m. and also shut off the water fountains or marked them with red tags used to signify rotten meat, according to the lawsuit. This prevented Muslim employees from getting water after their fast. When some workers left the plant for their break, they were told they could not return. Because of this "unauthorized work stoppage" workers were suspended or fired, the suit alleges.
"Anyone who tried to go to a prayer or kneel, those were the people who were basically thrown out," Farah said. He remains unemployed in Greeley and has friends still working at the plant, he said, adding that at least five Muslims were fired just last week during Ramadan. "Some of them are fired because of the prayer. . . . Nothing has changed."
The Nebraska lawsuit, which names about 90 workers and former workers, also claims the Muslims' repeated requests to pray during the day were not accommodated. Some supervisors interrupted employees' prayers, according to the suit. In circumstances similar to the Colorado case, workers in Nebraska were fired around Sept. 18, 2008, after asking for and being denied changes to their second-shift dinner breaks during Ramadan.
The harassment was "sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the terms and conditions of employment," the EEOC charged.
Swift, founded in 1855, grew from a small butcher shop in Massachusetts into an $8 billion meatpacking company. It was acquired in 2007 by a Brazilian company and became JBS.
Keys, the JBS Swift spokesman, described the 2008 Ramadan incident as "a hiccup" and noted that last year's and the current Islamic celebration have been without incident.
"We handled it in a holistic way" by bringing in Muslim and non-Muslim staff, the union and management and community organizations, Keys said.
Rich Vesta, president of JBS Beef North America, added: "We've made accommodations for their prayers within the limits of our production scenario. We certainly honor and respect their religion."
The company later installed two prayer rooms for Muslim workers in Greeley, according to published reports. It's not clear whether prayer rooms were added to the Nebraska plant.
"I feel they want to be a good corporate citizen," said Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, noting the company is moving its administrative operations to the city as well as its transportation division.
Many of the Somalis came to Greeley within three or four years. "They added another shift to the plant - that's why they moved here," Norton said.
About 1.3 million adults describe their religion as Muslim compared with 57.2 million Catholics and 36.1 million Baptists, and the Muslim population since 2001 has grown faster than most faiths, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Overall, Muslim workers have made nearly four times as many religious discrimination complaints as Protestants or Catholics, though they represent a smaller share of the workforce.
EEOC spokeswoman Lisser said suits are brought and accommodations are to be made for Jews, Seventh Day Adventists and Christians, too, for their holidays and Sabbaths.
- Special to The Washington Post
Sept. 7, 2010