Before 1991 Ahmed Mohamed saw the future stretched out before him. A former Arabic teacher, he had recently started a carpentry business with his brother. Times were good. Then civil war broke out in his native Somalia and things fell apart. "The gunmen came to our door," the bearded and bespectacled 54-year-old recounts. "They told me, 'We don't want to kill you. We just want your money.' They took everything: money, papers, car, timber for my business."
Like thousands of Somalis, Mohamed fled--first to Kenya, where he and his family lived for three years as refugees, and later to Minnesota. After stints as a school-bus driver and a warehouse worker, he found a job in 1996 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, cleaning and servicing rental cars for National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car (which are owned by the same corporation). The work was hard: The maintenance crew serviced as many as 900 cars in an eight-hour shift. But Mohamed advanced quickly. By 1999 he'd become a shift supervisor and was earning more than $13 per hour--enough to send for his family, who had remained behind in Kenya.
But beginning last year, things began to go sour for the Somali employees who composed a large percentage of National and Alamo's support staff. Mohamed and his fellow Somali workers say they were subjected to near-constant abuse, including racial slurs, pay disparity, and physical intimidation. When they complained, they allege, they were ignored. Late last summer dozens of the Somali employees got together to express their discontent--whereupon they were fired en masse on the spot. This week 33 former employees filed a lawsuit against National, Alamo, and their Florida-based parent company, ANC Rental Corp., alleging employment discrimination.
According to the suit, filed Tuesday in Hennepin County, Alamo and National's Somali employees were exploited--encouraged to clock out after their eight-hour shift and then clock back in as employees of a temp agency called Westaff Inc., in order to toil through a second shift. And instead of being paid time-and-a-half as mandated by federal and state labor laws, they claim they were actually paid a few dollars less during their second shift. The lawsuit also alleges that Somali employees were promoted less frequently and paid less than other workers with equal seniority.
All this, contends the group's attorney Patrick Noaker, contributed to a "sweatshop-type environment" at the rental agency's maintenance facility. Noaker, an attorney with the St. Paul firm Reinhardt & Anderson, says his Somali clients were eager to work long hours in order to have money to send to family members overseas, and managers at the rental-car companies took advantage. "The Somali people are very hard-working, and they're willing to do whatever job you need them to do," says the attorney. "Sometimes with corporate cost-cutting, that can lead to a situation that verges on exploitation. Unfortunately, in this case it seems to have gone well beyond that."
Managers at the National/Alamo maintenance center did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this story. The company's Florida corporate communications office indicated that a member of the legal department would address questions, but at press time there had been no response. A local spokesman for California-based Westaff Inc., which is also named as a defendant in the suit, declined to comment.
In their lawsuit, the Somali workers allege that maintenance-center managers subjected them to near-constant abuse, including using the terms "niggers," "fucking gorillas," "bushmen," and "prayers" (a pejorative reference to the religious observance mandated by Islam). This last epithet was particularly insulting, says Mohamed: "I take my faith seriously. He was making fun of it. My name's Ahmed Mohamed. I had a badge on my shirt that said my name. I am not named 'Prayer.'"
The Somali workers say that when they complained about the abusive language, they were either ignored or intimidated. Former employee Jamal Nur asserts that a supervisor once explained to him that the company has "three policies": one applicable to white employees, one for Hispanic employees, and a third for Somalis. (The supervisor, Mike Gloud, has since left the Twin Cities maintenance center and could not be located for comment.)
According to the lawsuit, the harassment went beyond verbal intimidation. In June of last year, the former employees allege, Gloud struck a Somali worker across the back with a brush used to scrape snow from cars. In a written account of the incident provided by attorney Patrick Noaker, the worker, Abdisalaan Hassan, states that when he reported the assault, management officials told him they didn't have time to address it. "Since that they ignoring me and I really needed my job," Hassan wrote. "I was afraid if talk about this issue that I will get fire, so I keeped myself quite [sic]."
Hassan was not injured, but he says the incident left a mark nonetheless. "I had no damage to my body. But I feel it," he says. "I'm not an animal. I'm a human being."
Noaker contends that what Hassan went through was especially damaging in light of the indignities already suffered by Somali refugees, many of whom bear the physical and psychological scars of their homeland's implosion. "The emotional impact something like this has on a group of people who are refugees is tremendous," says the attorney. "It scared everyone. And of course, it got around like wildfire."
In the aftermath of the alleged assault, Ahmed Mohamed recalls, the maintenance facility was a powder keg: Though Gloud purportedly received a three-day suspension, he was later promoted to assistant manager, which placed him in a position of power over Somali employees with more seniority. Nur and Mohamed, who were both supervisors at the time, say their repeated complaints to management about Gloud's behavior fell on deaf ears.
On August 9 of last year, the tension that had been building for months at the maintenance center boiled over. A group of Somali employees gathered to voice their dissatisfaction to management. Their bosses' response, according to the workers' lawsuit, was to fire all of them on the spot. (The lawsuit also alleges that several Somali employees who were not present at the time were fired in a mass termination of "all Somalis" who worked at the center.)
According to a police incident report from August 9, the rental-car facility's production manager, Roger Sorenson, called airport police and requested that the Somalis be escorted off the property. "Sorenson related that the group (about 25-30 people) refused to work today," wrote the officer who responded to the call. "Sorenson said he had told them that if they refused to work that they would be terminated. Sorenson said the group refused to work and he had informed them that they were terminated. Sorenson also related to officers that he wanted the group to leave the area immediately." (Sorenson, like Gloud, is no longer with the maintenance center and could not be located for comment.)
Mohamed and his fellow workers were then summarily evicted from the premises and herded onto a shuttle bus, which took them to the Mall of America and dropped them off. Though he has since found work as a cabdriver, Mohamed says he's still somewhat shell-shocked by how quickly his fortunes turned. "I was sitting around for a long time," he says, shaking his head. "I didn't believe I could lose my job that easily after five years."