(RNS) — With Amazon’s flagship sale, known as Prime Day, underway, Muslim workers and faith-based activists are leading major strikes and boycotts to protest working conditions during the online retail giant’s biggest event of the year.
Joining employee protests in four countries and other U.S. states, Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota, working with Muslim and East African worker advocacy groups, have walked out in hopes of gaining improvements in benefits, pay and quality of life while at work, including accommodations for their religious practices.
"Amazon tells the public that we have jobs opportunities and better pay," Safiyo Mohamed, who works at an Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, told MPR News. "That doesn't mean anything if you're mistreated; it doesn't mean anything if your employer doesn't respect you."
Strikes at Minnesota fulfillment centers, led by Mohamed and other largely East African Muslim workers, began Sunday (July 14) with help from the Awood Center, a Minnesota-based worker advocacy group.
Amazon, the second-largest U.S. employer after Walmart, has come under fire in recent years over reports of grueling working conditions. Warehouse workers say they are made to clock in long hours of intense labor and pressured not to take bathroom or water breaks.
“We can only conclude that the people who plan to attend events today are simply not informed,” an Amazon spokesperson told media. “As a company, we work hard to provide a safe, quality working environment for the 250,000 hourly employees across Amazon’s U.S. facilities.”
Employees and activists say the sale and Amazon’s promise of one-day delivery for many products will further pressure workers to keep up with demand.
In March, Minnesota workers went on strike for three hours to push for better working conditions. Last year, when Prime Day fell during Ramadan, workers requested more time for prayer and reduced workloads while fasting.
“The truth about Prime Day is that this ‘parade of epic deals’ couldn’t happen without the labor of warehouse workers like our clients who are forced to choose between praying or a bathroom break,” said Nimra Azmi, staff attorney with the national civil rights organization Muslim Advocates.
The group is instead asking consumers to donate $13 per month — the cost of an Amazon Prime membership — to support its legal work on behalf of Muslim workers in Amazon’s Shakopee warehouse.
In May, the group had filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of three Somali American women working at the warehouse, alleging religious and racial discrimination in the workplace.
The workers claimed they were denied enough time to pray, assigned less favorable work, passed over for promotions and retaliated against by management for speaking out about work conditions.
"Amazon is one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful companies," Azmi said. "Amazon’s workers, whose labor makes those profits possible, should not have to choose between prayer or work. Amazon has the capacity to make this possible for its workers but clearly does not have the will.”
Last year, East African workers organizing at Minnesota warehouses became the first U.S. group to successfully force Amazon management to the negotiating table. Despite two unprecedented meetings with Amazon, workers there are still pushing for better working conditions.
Progressive Jewish and Muslim groups are also organizing against the tech giant.
Last week, activists with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice joined hundreds of protesters outside the Amazon Web Services Summit in New York City to demand that the company cut its reported ties with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.
The company’s cloud technology hosts several DHS immigration operations and databases as well as the technology and infrastructure for several companies that work with ICE.
“Amazon must be held accountable for its role in building ICE's deportation machine and harming immigrant communities,” one online petition supported by members of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice said. “The corporation must immediately end all contracts and support for ICE and DHS.”
The petition was also organized by MPower Change, the Muslim social justice organization co-founded by activist Linda Sarsour, which has pressured New York City not to allow Amazon to build its second headquarters in the city. It also organized anti-Amazon boycotts and rallies over the company’s ties to ICE and its alleged discrimination against Muslim workers.