Accommodation is key to change


By Humaira Afzal • 10/8/08 • Minnesota is global: We neither live nor work in an insular society. We are instead part of a growing and competitive economy that demands companies be more creative and more open to diversity. Our state’s Somali population, the largest in the nation, helps give Minnesota a competitive edge.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

Accommodating and capitalizing on our state’s Somali workers is one important way local companies can compete harder in world markets.

Moreover, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals based on their religion. Employers are required to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of their employees or prospective employees unless a real “undue hardship” would prevent them from doing so. The Founding Fathers implemented religious freedom as one of the basic tenets of our Constitution and our American way of life. Religious freedom of expression and religious accommodation are not new concepts. They are what our country is built on.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) works with employers and workers to help reach practical solutions. CAIR-MN stresses the importance of working together and mediating disputes in a collegial manner.

If an employer is unwilling to accommodate workers’ religious beliefs and an agreement cannot be reached between the two parties, then the employees have the right to reach one through the legal process. An example is the recent settlement in a class-action lawsuit by Muslim workers against St. Cloud-based Gold’n Plump. Under the terms of the settlement, the employers have agreed not to demand its Muslims employees handle pork products, and to provide a ten minute break for religious prayer.

This is a landmark case that will become the foundation for settlements nationwide.

Another case involved Eagan-based Old Country Buffet, which refused to interview a Muslim teenager due to her religious headscarf. The hiring manager told the teenager that her headscarf violated the company’s uniform regulations and that she could reschedule if she decided to take off the scarf. After CAIR-MN got involved and asked the company to review the issue, the teenager was given a second interview and was hired by the restaurant.

Success Story: Macy’s

The most recent case CAIR-MN has resolved was an issue with the Macy’s department store at Edina’s Southdale Mall. The store had adopted a new “English only” policy and the Muslim employees were allegedly threatened with termination if they spoke a word of Somali. These workers are merchandise processors who have no contact with customers. They were also not given the opportunity to rectify the situation and were informed of the new policy during a meeting. The employees tried to resolve the matter by themselves through proper channels but were unsuccessful.

Recently, CAIR-MN directly involved itself with senior Macy’s personnel who quickly launched an investigation; they determined that a low-level manager gave incorrect information to the Muslim employees.

“Federal law and the Minnesota Human Rights Acts state that employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees based on national origin, which includes ‘English only’ policies in the workplace,” says CAIR-MN Civil Rights Director Taneeza Islam. “We applaud Macy’s for its prompt and professional handling of this case and we encourage all corporations to follow Macy’s example and demonstrate a strong commitment to racial, ethnic and religious diversity.”

Discrimination Complaints Double

Muslims’ complaints of religious discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have doubled in the last decade. In 1997, there were 398 complaints from Muslim workers. In 2007, there were 909. There are pages on the EEOC website that are dedicated to the workplace rights of Muslims, yet the complaints keep increasing. We need to increase education and hold more inter-faith dialogue if we want to see these complaints decrease, and finally disappear.

Diversity is defined as acknowledging and accepting differences among people with respect to ethnicity, class, religion, and gender. Somalis are becoming an important and vibrant thread in our Minnesota culture. Companies need to celebrate these differences and look for ways to become inclusive because diversity has the potential of yielding greater productivity and competitive advantages.

Minnesota cannot afford to ignore such an important asset.

CAIR, America’s largest Islamic civil liberties and advocacy group has 35 offices and chapters nationwide and in Canada. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

Humaira Afzal is a board member of CAIR-MN. She is actively involved in the American Muslim community and has written many articles on the importance of Inter-faith dialogue.