Meet three Somali-American women fighting for better work conditions at Amazon

Hibaq Mohamed poses for a portrait outside in front of a tree.
Hibaq Mohamed poses for a portrait Friday. Mohamed has worked at the Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Shakopee for three years. She and colleagues have helped organized about 200 workers at Amazon's Shakopee facility to strike six hours during Prime Day on Monday to demand better working conditions and job security.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

For the three years Safiyo Mohamed has worked at the Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Shakopee, Minn., she has felt the pressure to perform her duties as a robot would.

As a stower, her responsibilities included picking, scanning and storing 260 items an hour — items of all sizes and weights that a robot delivered to her for processing.

To maintain that rate, Mohamed had to do what her robot colleague did: She would not take bathroom breaks. Or drink water. Or stretch.

She feared that doing any of those things would lead her to fall behind the required rate, which would then result in the first of two disciplinary warnings, followed by a dismissal.

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Mohamed has survived in this environment for three years now, but many people who started working there at the same time did not.

To improve the situation, she and her colleagues — Hibaq Mohamed and Nimo Hirad — have helped organized about 200 workers at Amazon's Shakopee facility to strike six hours during Prime Day on Monday to demand better working conditions and job security.

In a statement to MPR News, an Amazon spokesperson called the protesters' allegations "baseless," saying that the company supports "people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve."

Monday's strike is not the first time that a group of newly arrived Somali-American women with limited English has taken on the giant online retailer. The women co-organized similar protests in recent years, in which they asked Amazon to reduce the line speed and to offer prayer space.

Behind this movement is a tiny Minneapolis-based nonprofit named Awood Center, which emerged in 2017 as a powerful advocate for East African immigrant and refugee workers, especially those with low-skill jobs.

A flyer reads "Amazon Workers Strike! Prime Day Monday July 15th"
About 200 workers at Amazon's Shakopee facility are planning to strike six hours during Prime Day on Monday to demand better working conditions and job security.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Giving workers the tools to flight

Just three months after Mohamed arrived in the United States in 2016, she found herself working 40 to 60 hours a week as a stower at the Shakopee fulfillment center, earning $13 an hour.

Picking, scanning and storing 260 items an hour for eight-plus hours each day and keeping up with a robot, Mohamed said, left her mentally and physically exhausted by the end of her shift. At night, she would have nightmares about messing up the required rate or getting fired.

"That was because all of the people whom I started with either got injured on the job or they got fired," she said in Somali. "After three weeks, everybody was fired. I was the only person left."

Then around the time Awood Center was established, the news reached Mohamed. She learned about the center's effort to empower workers and provide leadership training for emerging East African labor leaders.

She jumped at the opportunity.

Abdirahman Muse, the center's executive director and longtime labor organizer, declined to talk about his organization because he wants the workers to be their own agents. Muse does not work for Amazon. His group has also advised Uber drivers about work-related issues.

In a 2018 interview with MinnPost, he noted that the center was created to address work-related problems by providing East African employees opportunities to learn about their workforce rights, connecting them to legal services and helping them "fight back" employer mistreatment and discrimination.

"Many of them come to us and tell us that they face many work-related issues," Muse said at the time. "They complain about lack of respect at the workplace, hidden discrimination and lack of promotion."

By providing training and helping East African workers at Amazon organize themselves, Awood has brought the plight of these low-skill immigrant workers into the limelight. He estimates more than half of the workers at the Shakopee facility are East African.

Alleged mistreatment and harsh work conditions at the Shakopee warehouse have in recent years grabbed the attention of national media organizations — and Monday's walkout is no exception.

A banner for the Awood Center reads "Building East African Worker Power."
A banner at the Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that advocates for East African immigrant and refugee workers.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

'We're working as a machine'

Among the lead organizers of the Prime Day strike is Hirad, an employee at Amazon's Eagan facility, and Mohamed and Hibaq Mohamed (no relation) of the Shakopee fulfillment center.

After learning of Awood when it was founded two years ago, the Somali-American trio has been involved with meetings and protests to demand better working conditions at the company.

Hirad, who works as a packager, has been working with Amazon for nearly three years. Her main concern about the company is what she contends is the unbearable speed and extreme temperatures at which she and her colleagues are expected to perform.

Hibaq Mohamed, also a packager, is fighting for job security for the workers. That is, hiring them as permanent workers and eliminating the "unfair" firing of those who could not meet the required rate quota.

"We're working as a machine," she said. "We're getting injuries because we're not checking ourselves. We're receiving ... punishment and abuse. Amazon is always saying, 'You're not reaching your rate, you're not reaching your rate.'"

When protesters begin the walkout at 2 p.m. on Monday, they will ask Amazon to improve a few things: to reduce the required rate, to improve work injury compensation and to secure better working conditions.

Amazon, in the statement, said the company already provides many of the aspects that protesters are demanding — including employment opportunities, good paying jobs and competitive health care benefits.

"On average, 90 percent of Amazon associates at the Shakopee fulfillment center are full-time Amazon employed," an Amazon spokesperson said in the statement. "Year-to-date, over 100 temporary associates have converted to full-time Amazon positions. Just this last week, more than 30 were offered Amazon roles."

But Safiyo doesn't see those benefits as that important when low-skilled workers are overworked with limited employment security. "Amazon tells the public that we have jobs opportunities and better pay," said Safiyo, who said she is paid $19.25 an hour.

"That doesn't mean anything if you're mistreated; it doesn't mean anything if your employer doesn't respect you."