At new Minnesota facility, Amazon takes small steps to welcome Muslim workers

Despite the progress, the demands of some Muslim employees remain unanswered, a representative of the local Muslim community said.

Employees work recently at an Amazon facility in Woodbury, Minnesota. Video screen grab via KSTP

(RNS) — A new Amazon sorting facility in Woodbury, Minnesota, is taking its employees’ religious needs seriously, adding new “ablution stations” for ritual hand and foot washing and three rooms that people of any faith may use for prayer or meditation.

The 550,000-square-foot facility, which opened this month, employs about 300 Somalis and Somali Americans, many of them refugees from the generation-long civil war in the east African nation. Minnesota is home to as many as 80,000 Somali immigrants, more than half of those living in the United States. More than 99% of Somalians are Muslim.

A stop for packages moving between Amazon warehouses and their shipping destinations, the Woodbury center includes signs in Somali as well as translation services. Other accommodations for all employees include lactation rooms for nursing mothers and soundproof booths for phone calls.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director for CAIR-MN, the local chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Religion News Service that while CAIR-MN celebrates the move, in many ways, it’s the bare minimum. 

“In Minnesota, for the companies that we work with, it’s pretty standard,” he said about the prayer and ablution stations. “Some have been doing this since the ’90s, and others have gone beyond by making sure that even bathrooms are inclusive for people who prefer bidets.”

He added that other companies offer holiday pay for Muslim holidays, something he said Amazon locations in Minnesota have yet to commit to. 

“Amazon does pride itself in its ability to listen to the employees to make sure that they have that direct conduit to leaders of our facilities (and) to make sure that they have the safest and most inclusive workplaces possible,” Scott Seroka, an Amazon public relations manager, told local news channel KSTP-TV. Amazon did not directly respond to request for comment for this story.

Hussein said the prayer rooms and washing stations represent progress for Amazon employees, saying that when Amazon first opened facilities in Minnesota, “They really did not have a plan at all for operating with a diverse workforce.”

He recalls touring an Amazon facility and seeing Muslim workers praying in a space between the warehouse and lunchroom doors. “What if somebody swings the door and hits somebody? We’re talking about thousands of employees who are Muslim.” 

Just 40 minutes down the road, in Shakopee, Minnesota, nearly 100 workers walked off the job in May when the local Amazon warehouse refused to give them time off to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of fasting during Ramadan and, with Eid al-Adha, one of the two holiest days in the Islamic calendar. At a separate protest in June, workers at the Shakopee site rallied for better wages, safer working conditions and holiday pay for both Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Hussein said Amazon has not yet met protesters’ demands. 

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But in other ways, Amazon has been evolving to become more hospitable for refugee employees. Earlier this year, the tech giant launched Welcome Door, a program that offers legal resources for refugee and immigrant employees seeking citizenship. In September the company committed to hiring 5,000 refugees by the end of 2024.

According to Hussein, when it comes to being inclusive, Amazon is just getting started. “They are not trend leaders. They are catching up.” 

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