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Meat producer settles Muslim discrimination lawsuit for $5.5 million

16th Jul 2021

Harun Nasrullah

America’s second-largest meat producer has, on June 9, agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed the company discriminated against Muslim employees at a processing plant in Colorado.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the lawsuit in federal court in Denver in 2010, accusing the JBS Swift & Company of discriminating against employees at its beef processing plant in Greeley by denying them bathroom breaks and disciplining them more harshly than other workers because they were Muslim, immigrants from Somalia, and Black.

The company must pay about 300 employees who were included in the settlement.
According to the lawsuit, JBS prevented Muslim employees from praying and harassed them when they tried to pray during scheduled breaks and bathroom breaks.

JBS was also accused of shutting fountains during Ramadan in 2008, keeping Somali workers from drinking at sundown after a day of fasting, and from washing before prayers.

“I am pleased with the result because I think in terms of culture, in terms of policy, in terms of training, there have been changes,” said Mary O’Neill, regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “For JBS Swift, I hope that this is a learning moment, a change for them.”

“They were called the N-word. They had pork thrown at them. They were called all sorts of derogatory names in the workplace,” O’Neill said. “It’s really pretty ugly, frankly, and there was also just a denial of these prayer breaks.”

“This is a moment in time where we’re talking about systemic racism, and I do think that there is an overlap between these workers being Black, being from another country and being Muslim,” O’Neill said.

“I think that we really have to look at the way we treat our workers who are of a different colour and are immigrant workers.”

The alleged discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that forbids workplace discrimination, including on the basis of race, national origin or religion. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair, Charlotte Burrows, said, “This case serves as a reminder that systemic discrimination and harassment remain significant problems that we as a society must tackle.”

Religious discord between US factories and Muslim workers is nothing new, but a spokesman for the D.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said he’s never seen a conflict escalate to the point it has at the JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Greeley. “Usually in these cases, we’re able to come to an amicable solution,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.

JBS must make several changes to prevent future discrimination, including making former employees covered under the settlement eligible for rehire; reviewing, updating and posting its anti-discrimination policies; and maintaining a 24-hour hotline for reporting discrimination.

The company will also be required to provide quiet locations other than bathrooms for employees to pray.

Many Somalis started working at the Greeley plant following a 2006 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in which 270 Hispanic employees were detained.

Six of the company’s meat-packing facilities in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Iowa, and Minnesota were raided, resulting in the apprehension of 1,282 undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Laos, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and nearly 200 of them were criminally charged after a ten-month investigation into identity theft.

The treatment of the Somali workers came to a head two years later when they asked company officials to move the plant’s scheduled meal break so they could have breakfast at sunset during Ramadan.

Officials agreed to an earlier meal break but changed course three days later and, according to the lawsuit, Muslim workers who were told to go outside to pray weren’t allowed back into the plant.

Days later, several workers were fired for what the company said was an unauthorized work stoppage, according to the lawsuit.

Nikki Richardson, a spokeswoman for the company, said it does not admit any liability in the settlement prohibits all discrimination and “is committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”

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