The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

October 25, 2011

Somali workers back on job at Tyson plant

Officials: Language barrier created misunderstanding

NOEL, Mo. — A group of about 130 Somali workers were back on the job Tuesday  at the Tyson Foods chicken plant in Noel after discussions ironed out what company management says was a misunderstanding likely created by a language barrier.

The workers had left the plant Friday in what was said to be a perceived dispute with plant managers regarding prayer time for the workers, who are Muslims.

Abdinasir Ahmed, one of the workers, said the walkout took place after a group of 23 Muslim workers were told they would not be allowed time to pray. He said a plant official also was disrespectful of their religion, and that other workers joined the walkout when they heard what had happened.

In a statement released Tuesday, Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said the company official said she was not disrespectful. “The walkout was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding we believe was rooted in language differences.”

The Muslim faith is centered on The Five Pillars of Islam, or five basic acts that exist as a framework for worship. The second pillar, known as Salat, requires the faithful to pray at five specific times throughout the day: just before dawn, mid-day, afternoon, at sunset and in the evening. For devout Muslims, adherence to the Salat is obligatory.

Eric Hudson, an employee at Noel’s African grocery store, said he lived and worked among the Somali community for years in Colorado, and now in Missouri.

“Religion is the most important thing in these people’s lives,” he said.

Hudson said many Somali refugees are recent arrivals to the U.S., but many more have lived in the country since the early 1990s when civil war began in their country. The U.S. State Department currently regards Somalia as a failed state.

He said most of the Somalis he has talked to say they like their jobs and feel that Tyson is a good employer. He said the recent tensions have only existed for about a month.

Ahmed said he has worked at the plant for three years, and has been allowed prayer time until a new management team recently took over. Another 24-year-old worker, Bazi Nur, also said that the environment at the plant had changed when the new management team arrived.

In another statement this week, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said: “Our Noel management team includes a few new people who joined the operation a couple of months ago. However, the plant’s efforts to provide religious accommodation have not changed.”

In a telephone interview, Mickelson said none of the Muslim workers who walked out Friday were fired, and that Tyson brought a Somali interpreter from another plant to address any language barrier that may arise between management and the workers.

“We are a company that strives to be faith friendly, and, as required by federal law, have already been providing religious accommodation to workers at the Noel plant,” he said. “However, in this case, a group of workers involved asked that they all be allowed to take a prayer break at the same time.”

Mickelson says that allowing 130 workers to pray at the same time would put an undue hardship on the company’s operation.

Ahmed and Nur dispute the contention that the Muslim employees requested simultaneous prayer time.

“We submitted a request that each worker get time to pray one at a time,” Nur said.

Ahmed said discussions between company officials and local workers lasted until 8 p.m. Monday. He said workers returned to the plant Tuesday under a temporary agreement that allows for individual prayer breaks.

Nur said the Muslim workers in Noel are not asking for special treatment, just the accommodation required by law.

“We’re not here asking for what is not our rights,” he said.

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