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Muslim Security Guards Lodge Complaints Against Amazon for Discrimination

The company denies Islamophobia.

Wudan Yan

Community members and labor organizations speak out at Amazon's Annual Meeting of Shareholders on Tuesday May 23, 2017 in Fremont, Seattle. Amazon's security contractor, Security Industry Specialists, has a history of targeting their Muslim employees who are responsible for safeguarding Amazon's campus — denying them the right to pray at work, days off for religious holidays, showing videos with Islamophobic sentiments, and more. Image: Wudan Yan.

In early June of last year, Kulani Yacub was just starting her new job as a security officer on Amazon's campus in Seattle, Washington. Her second day of work just happened to be the day before Ramadan — the holiest month for Muslims, during which they fast from sun up to sundown.

Yacub's day started off with a briefing organized by her supervisors. On that particular day, her supervisors played a training video on how to recognize terrorists. One portion of the video depicted a clean-shaven man next to a bearded man wearing a turban.

"A lot of us Muslims in the room felt really emotional about it, so we walked out of the meeting," said Yacub. "It was really disrespectful for them to show videos that hinder Muslims in this country, where we already experience so much Islamophobia."

Yacub is employed by Security Industry Specialists (SIS), a security contractor hired by Amazon to protect its campus. More than 800 security personnel through SIS — a majority of whom are Muslim, according to the workers — patrol the campus and staff the security desks to keep the retail giant's headquarters secure. (SIS declined to comment on the number of Muslim workers).

A protester outside the Amazon's Annual Meeting of Shareholders on Tuesday May 23, 2017 in Fremont, Seattle. Image: Wudan Yan.

And although Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spoke out in support of Amazon employees who would be affected by Donald Trump's Muslim ban — and Vice President of Human Resources Beth Galetti's company-wide email said that "Amazon has been committed to equal rights, tolerance and diversity" in January — the contract workers say this support does not seem to extend to them.

Muslim security workers employed through SIS are now starting to speak out, citing unfair religious discriminatory practices at work. According to the Service Employees International Union Local 6 (SEIU 6), more than 21 workers have reported incidents of religious unfairness in 2016 and 2017. The number of complaints spiked after a pray-in on February 17, according to a spokesperson for SEIU 6.

Others who have listened to the complaints of Muslim security workers believes that Amazon has a role in improving their work conditions. On Tuesday, Seattle city councilmember Lisa Herbold said, "I'm calling on Amazon to either ensure SIS corrects these wrongdoings or that they newly contract with a security services provider who will ensure all their workers are treated with dignity... and share in the benefits that today's Amazon employees enjoy."

Muslim workers had difficulty finding the time and proper location to perform their prayers, which are typically done five times a day — and up to three times during an 8-hour work day — and take no more than fifteen minutes to perform. Workers who spoke with Motherboard said they prayed in garages, kitchenettes, and the corners of corridors. They said that their supervisors threatened to write them up if they were caught praying in Amazon's empty conference rooms. If a SIS employee is written up three times, they risk being fired by the company.

Abdinasar Elmi, a Muslim security officer for SIS, has worked at Amazon since 2012. Image: Wudan Yan.

While employees hired directly by Amazon have access to the company's prayer rooms, SIS workers only recently obtained access, and only after they spoke out by protesting and filing complaints. As of May 12, they are now allowed access to prayer rooms that Amazon has for their Muslim employees.

Even so, workers say that supervisors have been insensitive about Muslim holidays. Abdinasar Elmi, an officer who has worked for SIS since 2012, recalls a situation where one manager allegedly told workers that if they didn't get any breaks during Ramadan that they should "blame the Muslims."

Elmi and Betiel Desta, another security officer, immediately had their hours cut after they spoke out about against unfair religious practices and other working conditions after a May Day protest on Amazon's campus.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Amazon said, "Amazon requires all of its contractors to follow all employment laws, including those relating to religious accommodations and discrimination. SIS has thoroughly investigated these allegations and determined them to be unfounded."

Meanwhile, Ramadan starts today; whether or not the Muslim security officers will continue to experience religious discrimination this year has yet to be seen.