Thursday December 12, 2019
Somali immigrant workers protest at Amazon (Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)
A story out of Minnesota relates how a group of Muslim immigrants are taking on Amazon to challenge what they feel are inhuman working conditions required by the company. Fair enough.
The company has resisted worker unions. Amazon’s expectations of workers include reports of “pickers” required to fetch more than 300 items every 60 minutes (with the company’s inventory-tracking system monitoring whether they were hitting their marks), other workers required to box orders at a rate of 230 per hour and drivers expected to deliver deliver 999 out of 1,000 packages on time (resulting in numerous serious road accidents).
As reported by writer Jessica Bruder in Wired, the protest in Minnesota, which began before Christmas last year, was spearheaded by 24-year-old William Stolz and joined by a group of Somali immigrants working at the Amazon warehouse with him.
The story follows Stolz, who later who found himself in the middle of a broader Somali-led protest weeks after Congresswoman Ilhan Omar took office. Omar was also at that wider protest organized by Awood Center, a new group whose motto is “Building East African Worker Power.” Bruder quotes Ilhan Omar’s speech, paraphrasing that the East African community demanded better.
“I’ve had many jobs. I cleaned offices, I worked on assembly lines, I was even a security guard once. I’ve had jobs where we did not have enough breaks, where we used to try to go to the bathroom just so that we could pray. Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work. It’s about time we make Amazon understand that.”
The Wired story goes to describe the momentum of the protests along with vignettes of workers suffering poor working conditions. However, a number of disturbing things stand out in this story:
First, it has been part of the heritage of American immigrants to fight for their rights and just working conditions in the United States. Seeing Muslim American immigrants take up that mantle tells us we’re in some way integrating into that history.
However, historically immigrants coming to the United States took pride in becoming American. The second fact that stands out here is that certain immigrant populations, such as Minnesota’s Somali population, still doesn’t identify itself as American.
It is not called the “Building East African American Worker Power.” American has been pushed out, roped back in only when it is convenient for members of the community like Ilhan Omar to insulate themselves against attacks or exclusion.
How American is a community that cannot self identify as American? Perhaps they are and the issue is less what an organization has chosen to name itself and more of how the article frames the narrative of oppressed laborers, struggling Muslims, and of course reinforces the idea that you’re only a “devout” Muslim if you wear a hijab.
If the piece was supposed to be about a community organizing against big tech, it missed the mark.