Muslims file EEOC suits against meatpacking plants

During Ramadan in 2009, JBS Swift officials and Somali workers publicly said that issues had been resolved. Prayer rooms and interval breaks for prayers were established. But at other times, workers allege, other laborers threw meat and fat at them.
During Ramadan in 2009, JBS Swift officials and Somali workers publicly said that issues had been resolved. Prayer rooms and interval breaks for prayers were established. But at other times, workers allege, other laborers threw meat and fat at them.

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By Vickie Elmer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

More than 160 Muslims have enlisted the federal government in two discrimination lawsuits against JBS Swift meatpacking plants, where they allege blood and bones were hurled at them, bathroom walls were covered with vile graffiti and company supervisors disrupted their efforts to worship during Ramadan, ultimately firing many Islamic employees.

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.


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