A civil-rights group holds little hope that a week-old dispute between Muslim workers and their bosses at a Greeley slaughterhouse will end quickly, based on the company’s recent response in a similar standoff in Nebraska.
A mediation session between Brazilian-owned JBS Swift & Co. and the Council on American-Islamic Relations to discuss issues involving Muslim employees at its Grand Island, Neb., plant ended Wednesday without progress, CAIR officials said.
“They were completely uncooperative,” said Christina Abraham, director of civil rights at CAIR’s office in Chicago, which is handling both Swift disputes.
“Though we’re hopeful, the issue in Greeley may follow the same route and it could take years,” she said.
There was no date to resume the mediation.
It was the first hearing on 20 complaints that CAIR filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over problems Muslim workers say they had with Swift over prayer breaks at the plant last year.
Each complaint is offered mediation before the EEOC investigates, and Wednesday’s was the only session Swift agreed to attend so far, Abraham said.
The case revolved around one of several employees fired for walking off the job in July 2007 over the prayer dispute. CAIR said Swift officials denied firing the worker, Hassan Duwane, and insisted he had quit.
Swift officials have offered no public comment on the Grand Island dispute.
The complaints hinge on incidents where Muslim employees, most of them Somalis, said their religious needs to break for daily prayers were not accommodated. Islam requires practitioners to pray five times daily.
CAIR’s efforts to negotiate a settlement met an impasse when the group tried to discuss daily prayer breaks for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Abraham said.
The fifth prayer of the day must be held at sunset during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. The fast is broken with the day’s last prayer.
“We anticipated there could be problems with Ramadan, so we attempted to work that out ahead of time,” Abraham said. “We were trying to look to the future and ensure any agreement was sustained.”
That issue is precisely the sticking point in Greeley, where 103 employees were fired Tuesday, just days after Muslim workers walked off the job over break times for prayer during Ramadan.
The workers insisted they needed to pray at sunset and wanted the equivalent of a bathroom break. Workers are allowed breaks during the work shift, which runs from 3 p.m. to midnight, according to a contract between the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 union and Swift.
The contract calls for a 30-minute meal break, typically at 9:15 p.m., but management offered to move it to 8 p.m.
“The production lines are stopped whenever there is a meal break,” Swift spokeswoman Tamara Smid said. “They are not stopped for a bathroom break.”
With about 300 Muslim workers out of 1,300 working the shift in Greeley, an en-masse prayer break puts additional stress on the remaining workers, non-Muslim workers have said.
A lunch break earlier than 8 p.m. means employees would be required to work nearly four hours without a break, a dangerous situation on a production line where nearly 400 head of cattle are slaughtered each hour, company officials have said.