Muslim Amazon contractors finally allowed to use company prayer rooms | Ladders

Religious freedom and contract work collide in a controversy at Amazon.
Identity at Work

Muslim Amazon contractors win the right to use company prayer rooms

After months of pray-ins and protests, workers for an Amazon contractor finally got what full-time Muslim employees at Amazon already had: the right to pray during the day.

Like many, Amazon contracts Security Industry Specialists (SIS) to get security officers to patrol its large Seattle campus. 500 of 800 of those security employees are Muslim, according to SIS workers, but they had to pray in garages and other out-of-the-way places on campus and managers reportedly threatened them if they took 15 to 30 minutes off the clock to worship.

Now that’s changed. SIS told Seattle Globalist that its management released a list of available prayer rooms on the Amazon campus, which are the same rooms that were available to full-time employees.

“Amazon began establishing dedicated Prayer Rooms earlier this year and was kind enough to let us know that SIS employees can use them,” the President of SIS told the publication.

That’s a rosy picture that ignores the complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board that went into getting access to these rooms.

Time off for religious worship at work

The labor victory follows multiple allegations of religious discrimination by Muslim contract workers at the tech giant. Security officers said they were repeatedly denied spaces to pray, were reprimanded for taking time to do their daily prayers and faced intimidation for union activities.

SIS worker Abdinasir Elmi said that one manager told other employees to “blame the Muslims” who took time off during Ramadan for their increased workload.

Federal law requires that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for people’s faiths “unless it would be an undue hardship on the employer’s operation of its business.” Undue hardship can means it’s too much money or it “decreases workplace inefficiency.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. There are 3.3 million Muslims living in America, which account for 1% of the U.S. population. But although Muslims are a growing part of the workforce, their religious practices —which can include praying five times a day and fasting for a month during Ramadan — have frequently clashed with a company’s bottom-line.

In 2016, a Cargill plant in Colorado fired about 150 of its Muslim workers in a prayer dispute. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which publicized the case, alleged that workers were told to “go home” if they wanted to pray. The plant retorted that workers were given the reasonable accommodation of prayer rooms. That same year, Ariens, a Wisconsin manufacturing company, fired seven of its Muslim workers for taking unscheduled breaks, which they were using to pray. Muslim employees said that the company’s scheduled break times did not align with their needed prayer time.

As part of their faith, Muslims must pray five times each day: at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening. Ariens initially allowed Muslim workers to have a brief third break needed to accommodate prayers but ultimately concluded that this disrupted production. 14 other Muslim employees resigned over the break policy.

Ladders reached out to Amazon about the allegations of its contractors’ conditions and we will update when we get a response.

‘A different class’

Contract workers like Amazon’s security officers are the unsavory underbelly of the tech industry’s approach to employment. They are too often seen but not heard. They work at the company, but as one SIS security officer noted, “we’re in a different class than the rest of Amazon.”

SIS worker Eden Medhane noted that Amazon security officers are not allowed to park in the employee parking garage, even though their job is to patrol it.

Medhane has been one of the leading voices among irate contractors unimpressed with the proportion of the divide separating them from managers and full-time workers in terms of wages, benefits and treatment.

In his blistering April op-ed, SIS Amazon worker Medhane wrote that “if easing economic inequality could be as important to [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos as developing a private space program, he could turn his attention to the lives of his workers — all of his workers — in the city that helped make him the second-richest person in the world.”

Crowdsourced work with no financial net

The divide between full-time workers and contractors is not unique to Amazon’s security workforce.

Amazon also uses contractors for Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourced digital marketplace that exists largely for data processing tasks that cannot be automated. It is repetitive and often mind-numbing work.

Employers using Amazon Mechanical Turk decide what they wish to pay crowdsourced contractors. AMT contract workers have no minimum wage.

Google chose full-time hires instead of contractors

Many tech companies hardly balk at paying engineers richly, but they save costs on contract workers, which work alongside full-time staff on many similar tasks but receive fewer benefits.

A former Google employee critiqued Google’s decision to hide its subcontracted workforce of service workers, content moderators and laborers: they “didn’t ride the Google shuttle, eat the Google food, or attend beer-filled all-hands Friday meetings. In fact, Google’s abundantly productive, nonhierarchical, and playful workplace seemed to rely on hidden layers of human data work: subcontractors who were off the books.”

Google made changes. In 2014, it parted ways with SIS and hired about 200 security officers full-time