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Somalis refuse to work after factory bans burqas

Religion is one of several classes that are protected from workplace discrimination under federal and state laws. Here in Maryland, it is illegal for an employer to treat a worker unfairly on the basis of race, age, sex, disability, religion, national origin, family or marital status or sexual orientation. However, discrimination is often masked, which can make it difficult for an employee to prove by him- or herself that unfair treatment is taking place.

Allegations of religious discrimination arose at a dessert factory in a small town in the Midwest this week. The factory, which employs a large number of Somali Muslims, recently banned the traditional head-to-foot burqas that Somali Muslim women wear. While the company says the ban is related to safety concerns, Somalis at the factory say it is discrimination and many men and women walked off the job Monday in protest.

Under religious guidelines, Somali Muslim women generally wear loose-fitting garments called burqas that cover everything except the skin on their faces and hands.

Two weeks ago, the bottom of a woman's burqa became caught in a boot washer at the Minnesota factory, reportedly prompting the company's new owner to implement a dress code change which banned loose fitting fabric below the knees. Workers were instead allowed to wear slacks underneath knee-length skirts if they tucked them into their boots.

The affected workers have reportedly asked the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations to become involved in the case.

So far, CAIR has said management should have discussed the dress code change with the workers--many of whom worked at the factory for years in their burqas--before abruptly asking them to change clothing at work Monday morning.

Often, effective communication can prevent workplace disputes. When workers are so distraught by a change to the workplace that they walk off the job, no one wins. The workers at this facility may be extra sensitive to discriminatory issues following the wrongful termination of 25 Islamic workers in 2010 related to praying in the workplace.

The business was under different ownership at that time.

Experienced employment law attorneys can work with employees and employers to ensure that cultural and religious differences as well as safety concerns are respected within the workplace.

Source: City Pages, "Somalis walk off job at Minnesota dessert factory in protest of company's new burqa ban," Aaron Rupar, June 6, 2012

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