In an unprecedented move, e-commerce giant Amazon is negotiating with immigrant workers from East Africa who had complained about working conditions and an alleged indifference to their Muslim religious practices one of the company’s fulfillment centers in the Minneapolis area. While they are given additional breaks for prayer, the company’s demands for production output were not factored in. According to the New York Times, Amazon is now offering better working facilities at the Shakopee facility in the Minneapolis metropolitan area, as well as “hiring a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity rates, designate a manager to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly.”
The report said that Amazon did not view the negotiations as a traditional negotiation with a labor union. Instead, according to the Times, the company saw the talks in the same light as “its outreach efforts with veterans and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.” Formal meetings and the expression of complaints for the workers were handled by Awood, which is a nonprofit group formed by East Africans living in Minnesota. In the NYT report, Awood executive director Abdirahman Muse claimed, “Nobody would assume a Muslim worker, with limited language skills, in the middle of Minnesota, can be a leader in a viable fight against one of the biggest employers in the world and bring them to the table.” He led the negotiations with the online retail giant.
Labor unions and experts believe that this is the first time that Amazon has been forced to the bargaining table, in advance of protests by Amazon workers in the UK on Black Friday.
Earlier compromises offered by Amazon did not satisfy the workers in Minnesota. On the weekend of November 17-18 weekend, workers at the Amazon facility decided that the productivity levels set by Amazon were unacceptable. Therefore, Awood planned to stage a protest and walkout during the middle of the Christmas rush on December 14. Reportedly, Amazon increased the required number of items packed by the workers from 160 to 230.
Muslim workers at the Minnesota facility were given paid breaks for prayers, as is required by state law. But managers allegedly told workers that they must maintain the pace of others and meet the company’s productivity standards. After several private meetings over the summer, and after complaints from the mostly Muslim East Africans, Amazon agreed to require that a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager agree on any firings related to productivity. The company also agreed to designate a manager to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly.
However, on Saturday approximately 40 workers decided that Amazon’s concessions were not enough, especially with regard to productivity rates. According to a statement by Amazon, “Each community is a little different, and in each one, we work to ensure our employees have a great experience with the most important element being our direct connection to our employees.” A spokesperson said that Amazon does not view its meetings with the East Africans as a negotiation, but as a form of community engagement that is similar to outreach efforts with veterans and LGBTQ employees.
Awood has received support from local mosques and community leaders. Founded in 2016, it shares office space with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations at a Lutheran church. CAIR was an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal case related to terrorism funding. Awood counts on allies such as Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, who will fill the seat vacated by a fellow Democrat, Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the House, who was elected on November 6 to serve as Minnesota’s state attorney general. Omar has attended Awood events, as has Minnesota Gov-elect Tim Walz (D). Awood Director Abdirahman Muse once worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to organize home health aides. He also worked as an aide to a mayor of Minneapolis. Awood receives funding from SEIU and philanthropies.