In fight for better working conditions, Somalis find their voice

People holding signs outside a courthouse
Local poultry workers and advocates gather in front of the Stearns County Courthouse on April 25, 2019, in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Courtesy of Greater Minnesota Worker Center.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between and

When Bisharo Aded was hired onto the production line at Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in Cold Spring, Minn., in 2014, her co-workers warned her bluntly: Don’t lose your job, or you’ll risk becoming homeless.

She had lived only three years in the United States, and the thought of ending up on the streets frightened her. As a young single mother, she took her colleagues’ advice to heart — always show up on time; don’t complain about working conditions; if you get hurt at work, don’t report it.

Even when she encountered conditions she felt were abusive, Aded kept her head down and focused on her duties, packaging chicken carcasses on the overnight shift for $14 an hour.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

“When you need to go to the restroom, they tell you that you have to wait until your break time,” Aded recalled. “If you complain, they tell you to get out.”

It’s a story of struggle well-known to German, Scandinavian and Eastern European immigrants of years gone by in Minnesota. Those new Americans forced better working conditions by raising their voices and organizing.

Today, low-skilled Somali workers in Minnesota are doing the same. They include employees at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, workers at the Jennie-O Turkey Store plant in Melrose and Aded’s old co-workers in Cold Spring. They’re helping reshape the state’s labor movement.

“Instead of simply looking at them as victims we’re looking at them as active political agents of change,” said Stephen Philion, a St. Cloud State University sociology professor whose research led to the creation in 2013 of the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, a St. Cloud-based nonprofit that educates low-wage workers about their rights and helps them organize for improved work conditions and pay.

Empowering low-wage workers

The Greater Minnesota Worker Center has become especially important to Somali people in central Minnesota who work in the region’s meat processing plants.

Its Minneapolis-based counterpart, Awood Center, has emerged as a powerful voice for workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Shakopee.

Awood opened in 2017 and has been educating Amazon workers since then about their rights while also providing leadership training so they can organize on their own for better working conditions.

“I don’t want me and other workers to just leave because there’s a problem,” said Hibaq Mohamed, a packager at Amazon’s Shakopee warehouse who’s trained at the Awood Center and helped lead several protests and walkouts by East African workers at Amazon, including one in July.

“We have a power to change,” Mohamed said. “We want to show them that we have rights. And we want … to make (Amazon) a better place.”

Awood was created to help East African workers learn about their rights, Abdirahman Muse, the center’s co-founder said in a 2018 interview. Muse said he helped establish the center in response to a growing number of low-wage Somali workers who reached out to him about mistreatment issues, including wage theft, wrongful dismissal and harsh work conditions.

‘Just part of the struggle’

As more Somalis moved into central Minnesota, they became susceptible to workplace mistreatment, retaliation and discrimination and faced language and cultural barriers, said Ahmed Ali, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Workers Center.

“The St. Cloud area has a good network of social service organizations,” Ali said, “but it lacked organizations like ours that would organize low-wage workers so they could build power and fight for their rights.”

That’s led to workers at Jennie-O and Pilgrim’s Pride staging protests and walkouts to highlight grievances, including excessive speed at production lines, limited bathroom breaks, unfair terminations and lack of religious accommodations.

Aded was finally able to break free from the fear that losing a job would lead her to permanent unemployment and homelessness.

In her first two years at Pilgrim’s Pride, said Aded, the managers didn’t allow workers to use the bathroom outside their regular 30-minute breaks. She said they also obliged employees to work in hazardous conditions.

“We strive to operate all our facilities responsibly, including in Cold Spring, and we take allegations like these very seriously,” said Nikki Richardson, a spokesperson with the company. “We want our team members to feel comfortable approaching supervisors and management if they have feedback, questions or a situation that needs to be addressed.”

Philion, the St. Cloud State researcher, sees the work of Somali people now as an extension of labor advocacy from a century earlier.

“Every immigrant group in Minnesota has had to fight for their rights,” he said. “This is just part of the struggle.”

Aded, who left Pilgrim’s Pride last year, now volunteers at the Greater Minnesota Workers Center, training others on how to speak up.

“I tell them, ‘No one can ruin your credit,’” she said. “If you have issues with your employer, there’s an organization that works with people like you.”