Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Somali Influx Unsettles Latino Meatpackers

October 16, 2008

A Somali Influx Unsettles Latino Meatpackers

New York Times

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Like many workers at the meatpacking plant here, Raul A. Garcia, a Mexican-American, has watched with some discomfort as hundreds of Somali immigrants have moved to town in the past couple of years, many of them to fill jobs once held by Latino workers taken away in immigration raids.

Mr. Garcia has been particularly troubled by the Somalis’ demand that they be allowed special breaks for prayers that are obligatory for devout Muslims. The breaks, he said, would inconvenience everyone else.

“The Latino is very humble,” said Mr. Garcia, 73, who has worked at the plant, owned by JBS U.S.A. Inc., since 1994. “But they are arrogant,” he said of the Somali workers. “They act like the United States owes them.”

Mr. Garcia was among more than 1,000 Latino and other workers who protested a decision last month by the plant’s management to cut their work day — and their pay — by 15 minutes to give scores of Somali workers time for evening prayers.

After several days of strikes and disruptions, the plant’s management abandoned the plan.

But the dispute peeled back a layer of civility in this southern Nebraska city of 47,000, revealing slow-burning racial and ethnic tensions that have been an unexpected aftermath of the enforcement raids at workplaces by federal immigration authorities.

Grand Island is among a half dozen or so cities where discord has arisen with the arrival of Somali workers, many of whom were recruited by employers from elsewhere in the United States after immigration raids sharply reduced their Latino work forces.

The Somalis are by and large in this country legally as political refugees and therefore are not singled out by immigration authorities.

In some of these places, including Grand Island, this newest wave of immigrant workers has had the effect of unifying the other ethnic populations against the Somalis and has also diverted some of the longstanding hostility toward Latino immigrants among some native-born residents.

“Every wave of immigrants has had to struggle to get assimilated,” said Margaret Hornady, the mayor of Grand Island and a longtime resident of Nebraska. “Right now, it’s so volatile.”

The federal immigration crackdown has hit meat- and poultry-packing plants particularly hard, with more than 2,000 immigrant workers in at least nine places detained since 2006 in major raids, most on immigration violations.

Struggling to fill the grueling low-wage jobs that attract few American workers, the plants have placed advertisements in immigrant newspapers and circulated fliers in immigrant neighborhoods.

Some companies, like Swift & Company, which owned the plant in Grand Island until being bought up by the Brazilian conglomerate JBS last year, have made a particular pitch for Somalis because of their legal status. Tens of thousands of Somali refugees fleeing civil war have settled in the United States since the 1990s, with the largest concentration in Minnesota.

But the companies are learning that in trying to solve one problem they have created another.

Early last month, about 220 Somali Muslims walked off the job at a JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., saying the company had prevented them from observing their prayer schedule. (More than 100 of the workers were later fired.)

Days later, a poultry company in Minnesota agreed to allow Muslim workers prayer breaks and the right to refuse handling pork products, settling a lawsuit filed by nine Somali workers.

In August, the management of a Tyson chicken plant in Shelbyville, Tenn., designated a Muslim holy day as a paid holiday, acceding to a demand by Somali workers. The plant had originally agreed to substitute the Muslim holy day for Labor Day, but reinstated Labor Day after a barrage of criticism from non-Muslims.

In some workplaces, newly arrived Somali Muslims have not protested their working conditions. That has been the case at Agriprocessors, a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. About 150 Somali Muslims have found jobs there, most of them recruited by a staffing company after the plant lost about half its work force in an immigration raid in May.

Jack Shandley, a senior vice president for JBS U.S.A., said in an e-mail message that “integrating persons of diverse backgrounds regularly presents new and different issues.”

“Religious accommodation is only one workplace diversity issue that has been addressed,” Mr. Shandley said.

Nationwide, employment discrimination complaints by Muslim workers have more than doubled in the past decade, to 607 in the 2007 fiscal year, from 285 in the 1998 fiscal year, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has sent representatives to Grand Island to interview Somali workers.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers to discriminate based on religion and says that employers must “reasonably accommodate” religious practices. But the act offers some exceptions, including instances when adjustments would cause “undue hardship” on the company’s business interests.

The new tensions here extend well beyond the walls of the plant. Scratch beneath Grand Island’s surface and there is resentment, discomfort and mistrust everywhere, some residents say — between the white community and the various immigrant communities; between the older immigrant communities, like the Latinos, and the newer ones, namely the Somalis and the Sudanese, another refugee community that has grown here in recent years; and between the Somalis, who are largely Muslim, and the Sudanese, who are largely Christian.

In dozens of interviews here, white, Latino and other residents seemed mostly bewildered, if not downright suspicious, of the Somalis, very few of whom speak English.

“I kind of admire all the effort they make to follow that religion, but sometimes you have to adapt to the workplace,” said Fidencio Sandoval, a plant worker born in Mexico who has become an American citizen. “A new culture comes in with their demands and says, ‘This is what we want.’ This is kind of new for me.”

Ms. Hornady, the mayor, suggested somewhat apologetically that she had been having difficulty adjusting to the presence of Somalis. She said she found the sight of Somali women, many of whom wear Muslim headdresses, or hijabs, “startling.”

“I’m sorry, but after 9/11, it gives some of us a turn,” she said.

Not only do the hijabs suggest female subjugation, Ms. Hornady said, but the sight of Muslims in town made her think of Osama bin Laden and the attacks on the United States.

“I know that that’s horrible and that’s prejudice,” she said. “I’m working very hard on it.”

She added, “Aren’t a lot of thoughtful Americans struggling with this?”

For their part, the Somalis say they feel aggrieved and not particularly welcome.

“A lot of people look at you weird — they judge you,” said Abdisamad Jama, 22, a Somali who moved to Grand Island two years ago to work as an interpreter at the plant and now freelances. “Or sometimes they will say, ‘Go back to your country.’ ”

Founded in the mid-19th century by German immigrants, Grand Island gradually became more diverse in the mid- and late-20th century with the arrival of Latino workers, mainly Mexicans.

The Latinos came at first to work in the agricultural fields; later arrivals found employment in the meatpacking plant. Refugees from Laos and, in the past few years, Sudan followed, and many of them also found work in the plant, which is now the city’s largest employer, with about 2,700 workers.

In December 2006, in an event that would deeply affect the city and alter its uneasy balance of ethnicities, immigration authorities raided the plant and took away more than 200 illegal Latino workers. Another 200 or so workers quit soon afterward.

The raid was one of six sweeps by federal agents at plants owned by Swift, gutting the company of about 1,200 workers in one day and forcing the plants to slow their operations.

Many of the Somalis who eventually arrived to fill those jobs were practicing Muslims and their faith obliges them to pray at five fixed times every day. In Grand Island, the workers would grab prayer time whenever they could, during scheduled rest periods or on restroom breaks. But during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast in daylight hours and break their fast in a ritualistic ceremony at sundown. A more formal accommodation of their needs was necessary, the Somali workers said.

Last year, the Somalis here demanded time off for the Ramadan ceremony. The company refused, saying it could not afford to let so many workers step away from the production line at one time. Dozens of Somalis quit, though they eventually returned to work.

The situation repeated itself last month. Dennis Sydow, the plant’s vice president and general manager, said a delegation of Somali workers approached him on Sept. 10 about allowing them to take their dinner break at 7:30 p.m., near sundown, rather than at the normal time of 8 to 8:30.

Mr. Sydow rejected the request, saying the production line would slow to a crawl and the Somalis’ co-workers would unfairly have to take up the slack.

The Somalis said their co-workers did not offer a lot of support. “Latinos were sometimes saying, ‘Don’t pray, don’t pray,’ ” said Abdifatah Warsame, 21.

After the Somalis went out on strike on Sept. 15, the plant’s management and the union brokered a deal the next day that would have shifted the dinner break to 7:45 p.m., close enough to sundown to satisfy the Somalis. Because of the plant’s complex scheduling rules, the new dinner break would have also required an earlier end to the shift, potentially cutting the work day by 15 minutes.

Word of the accord spread quickly throughout the non-Somali work force, though the reports were infected with false rumors of pay raises for the Somalis and more severe cuts in the work day for everyone.

In a counterprotest on Sept. 17, more than 1,000 Latino and Sudanese workers lined up alongside white workers in opposition to the concessions to the Somalis.

“We had complaints from the whites, Hispanics and Sudanese,” said Abdalla Omar, 26, one of the Somali strikers.

The union and the plant management backed down, reverting to the original dinner schedule. More than 70 Somalis, including Mr. Omar and Mr. Warsame, stormed out of the plant and did not return; they either quit or were fired.

Since then, Ramadan has ended and work has returned to normal at the plant, but most everyone — management, the union and the employees — says the root causes of the disturbances have not been fully addressed. A sizeable Somali contingent remains employed at the factory — Somali leaders say the number is about 100; the union puts the figure at more than 300, making similar disruptions possible next year.

“Right now, this is a real kindling box,” said Daniel O. Hoppes, president of the local chapter of the union, the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Xawa Ahmed, 48, a Somali, moved to Grand Island from Minnesota last month to help organize the Somali community. A big part of her work, Ms. Ahmed said, will be to help demystify the Somalis who remain.

“We’re trying to make people understand why we do these things, why we practice this religion, why we live in America,” she said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding.”

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