Somalis walk off job at Minnesota dessert factory in protest of company's new burqa ban

About 30 southern MN Somalis walked off the job after their employer instituted a burqa ban.
About 30 southern MN Somalis walked off the job after their employer instituted a burqa ban.

Somalis working at Dianne's Fine Desserts factory in Le Center aren't happy about their company's new burqa ban, and walked off the job Monday to signal their displeasure.

Three weeks ago, Dianne's was purchased by Mike Knowles, a Massachusetts-based businessman. A week later, a Somali woman working in the factory got the flowing cloth at the bottom of her burqa caught in a boot washer. Though she wasn't hurt, the incident prompted management to institute a new dress code banning unconstrained cloth below the knees.

Many of the 250 employees at the factory are Somali Muslims. Muslim women wear the loose-fitting, head-to-foot burqas at work because they aren't allowed to show skin other than faces and hands. Now, to remain in accordance with the dictates of their religion, they'll have to wear slacks or leggings under company-issued skirts.

Shamso Ali is a female Somali Muslim who works at Dianne's factory. She told the Faribault Daily News that as she prepared to begin her shift Monday morning while wearing a burqa, a manager approached her and told her to go change.

"I could not believe it was happening," Ali said. "They asked, 'Will you go change your skirt?' I said, 'No, I cannot.' 'Well, then you need to leave,' they said."

Ali eventually joined 10 other Somali women and about 20 Somali men in walking off the job.

Asher Ali, leader of the Somali Community Center in Faribault, characterized the company-issued skirts as "extremely high, they are way up there... It's like something a model would wear." His remarks ignore the possibility that, you know, Somali women could wear slacks or leggings and meet the dress code while abiding by their religion.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, employers must reasonably accommodate a worker's religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would cause undue hardship -- including compromising workplace safety.

Knowles, referring to the burqa-caught-in-boot washer incident, said, "when there's a safety incident like that you can't just ignore it... We addressed the safety issue by saying no skirts below the knee but that workers could wear slacks or pants and tuck them into their boots."

As for the 30 or so workers who walked off the job Monday, Knowles wouldn't tell the Daily News whether their jobs will still be waiting for them if they decide to return to work.

"People can't just walk off the job," he said.  

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