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Muslims Say Dell Forbade Them to Pray at Work

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page E01

Abdi Halane, a Somali refugee living in Nashville, is looking for a new job this month.

In February, Halane was one of 30 Muslim assembly-line workers who walked away from their jobs building computers at a Dell Inc. facility after they were told to make a choice between prayers mandated by Islam and their job, according to Halane and another worker from the facility.

Abdi Halane, left, and Hassan Ahmed pray the Islamic sunset prayer at Somali center in Nashville. Halane is one of 30 Muslims who quit their jobs at Dell over the prayer issue. (Eric Parsons -- The Tennessean Via AP)

It's a conflict between Islam's devotional requirements, which call for adherents to pray five times a day, and the efficient manufacturing processes of the world's largest PC maker -- which have assembly-line workers plugging parts into hundred of computers an hour.

For Halane, he said, the ultimatum came as a surprise at a 1 a.m. meeting, in the middle of his usual overnight shift, when he and his Muslim co-workers were called into the plant's cafeteria.

"They said, 'From now on, you have to stay without praying, or you are terminated,' " Halane said in a telephone interview. " 'If you want to leave, leave, if you want.' We put down our badges and left." Halane said he has not heard from Dell or Spherion Corp., the labor-placement agency that employed him at the Dell facility, since that day, Feb. 4.

David Frink, a Dell spokesman, disputed that the Muslim workers, who come from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, had been terminated and said yesterday that the computer maker is working to resolve the issue with the workers and with Spherion. Frink said he did not know why the issue of Muslim employee prayer became a problem at the plant.

"They absolutely were not fired," he said. "What we've got is, frankly, a misunderstanding. We're working with the employees to resolve this." Frink said Dell has not received a formal complaint about the matter. Nashville's Human Relations Commission, which will be mediating the dispute, is expected to receive formal complaints from the workers next week.

Byrne K. Mulrooney, president of staffing and workforce solutions at Dell contractor Spherion, would not say whether the company is considering making accommodations for its Muslim workers who want to conduct their regular prayers at work.

Mulrooney said a few workers had already returned to the facility, though it was unclear yesterday how many workers had done so.

"We're very aware of the concerns that have been raised and are taking them very seriously," he said. "We're very confident that our policies met and exceed what is required of us by law."

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