Amazon workers too scared to pray

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Three Amazon employees have filed a complaint against the e-commerce giant, saying they faced racial and religious discrimination while working in one of the company’s warehouses.

In a letter filed through non-profit legal organisation Muslim Advocates, the three women say the retail giant operates a hostile work environment that punishes them for their religious beliefs.

The complaint, related to a Minnesota warehouse in the United States and sent to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said the women, of Muslim Somali descent, were too afraid to take time off to pray, fast, or even take toilet breaks.

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“Amazon has cultivated a hostile work environment and an environment of discrimination against its Muslim Somali and East African workers on the basis of their race, religion, and national origin,” the letter said.

It details how workers are measured by how many items they packed per hour.

“Employees who regularly fell short of the rate — simply because they attempted to observe their religious obligations to pray — faced repercussions such as ‘write-ups’ that could lead to termination,” the complaint said.

The lack of airconditioning in the warehouses also made it “almost impossible” for staff members who were fasting during Ramadan to keep up with the fast rate demanded by Amazon.

The women also claimed they were punished for taking part in protests against Amazon related to the lack of opportunities to pray and being discriminated against.

They say a “campaign of retaliatory harassment” began straight after they took part in the protests, with one having everyday conversations repeatedly video recorded “in an intimidation tactic”.

All the women have allegedly been given improper “write-ups” or warnings.

“The charges show that Amazon’s message to Somali workers has been clear: since they protested Amazon’s discriminatory actions, Amazon management would now create an environment so harassing and hostile that they would be forced to quit,” the letter from Muslim Advocates said.

One of the women says the harassment was so severe she had no other choice but to resign, while another, who had previously been considered a “model employee”, is one “write-up” off being fired.

The Muslim Advocates group have requested the claims be investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which takes care of federal laws that police discrimination against employees because of their race, religion, age, gender or disability.

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement it wouldn’t address the issue specifically, saying the company doesn’t discuss complaints publicly.

“Diversity and inclusion is central to our business and company culture, and associates can pray whenever they choose,” the company said.

“Prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.”

Earlier this year, an ABC investigation reported on the e-commerce company applying “abusive supervision” to its staff in Australia.

It centred on eight current and former employees at Amazon’s first warehouse in the country at Dandenong South, in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, who said the retailer’s obsession with quality and pace made them feel “dehumanised”.

“They would drill ideology into you every day. They’d try and brainwash you into becoming the star player of Amazon,” one employee said.

They say the e-commerce company applies strict targets for pace and keeping up with its promise of next-day delivery, with threats of job loss frequent.

“Your job is carved up to tiny tasks which means they can replace you easily, and training is very efficient,” another anonymous employee said.

Amazon denied the allegations made by the staff interviewed and was critical of the investigation.

“The article by the ABC is intentionally sensational in its reporting and is demeaning to the hardworking dedicated people who work at Amazon fulfilment centres and do a great job,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to news.com.au.

“We strive to be a great employer in Australia, and we believe we are making good progress but still have lots more to do.”

Continue the conversation on Twitter @James_P_Hall or james.hall1@news.com.au

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