Abdi Halane, a Somali refugee living in Nashville, is looking for a new job this month. In February, Halane was one of 30 Muslim assembly-line workers who walked away from their jobs building computers at a Dell Inc. facility after they were told to make a choice between prayers mandated by Islam and their job, according to Halane and another worker from the facility.
It's a conflict between Islam's devotional requirements, which call for adherents to pray five times a day, and the efficient manufacturing processes of the world's largest PC maker -- which have assembly-line workers plugging parts into hundred of computers an hour. For Halane, he said, the ultimatum came as a surprise at a 1 a.m. meeting, in the middle of his usual overnight shift, when he and his Muslim co-workers were called into the plant's cafeteria.
"They said, 'From now on, you have to stay without praying, or you are terminated,'" Halane said in a telephone interview. "'If you want to leave, leave, if you want.' We put down our badges and left." Halane said he has not heard from Dell or Spherion Corp., the labor-placement agency that employed him at the Dell facility, since that day, Feb. 4. David Frink, a Dell spokesman, disputed that the Muslim workers, who come from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, had been terminated and said yesterday that the computer maker is working to resolve the issue with the workers and with Spherion.
Frink said he did not know why the issue of Muslim employee prayer became a problem at the plant. "They absolutely were not fired," he said. "What we've got is, frankly, a misunderstanding. We're working with the employees to resolve this." Frink said Dell has not received a formal complaint about the matter. Nashville's Human Relations Commission, which will be mediating the dispute, is expected to receive formal complaints from the workers next week.
Byrne K. Mulrooney, president of staffing and workforce solutions at Dell contractor Spherion, would not say whether the company is considering making accommodations for its Muslim workers who want to conduct their regular prayers at work. Mulrooney said a few workers had already returned to the facility, though it was unclear yesterday how many workers had done so. "We're very aware of the concerns that have been raised and are taking them very seriously," he said. "We're very confident that our policies met and exceed what is required of us by law."
Islam's five daily prayers only take a few minutes, and most can take place within a span of a few hours. The daily devotion at sunset, however, must be completed within a 20- to 30-minute window. This is the prayer that sparked the conflict at the Dell plant. Before last month's standoff, Muslim workers there employed a system in which Muslim co-workers would stand in for each other on the line as their colleagues took a few minutes to pray in a quiet spot away from the floor of the plant.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said this is not the first time Muslim assembly-line workers have run into a conflict between their job and their faith. "It's a problem for recent immigrant Muslims because they often do manufacturing and production work," Hooper said. "It tends to be a first-generation issue." Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer must accommodate an employee's religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the company… SEE ALSO: