By Brian Ojanpa, Daily News
Disagreement over a new dress code policy has prompted 30 Somali workers to walk out of a Le Center, Minn., food plant.
The workers — 10 women and 20 men — left Dianne’s Fine Desserts on Monday after the women were told their clothing didn’t conform to the new safety policy.
The amended dress code was decreed after a Somali female worker’s long dress reportedly got caught in a floor machine that washes footwear to maintain plant sanitation guidelines.
The new policy disallows dresses worn below the knee. Workers said the new prescribed length is not in keeping with Islamic tenets regarding modest dress for women.
Abdi Sabrie, who operates the African Family and Education Center in Mankato and acts as a workplace liaison for immigrants, said the conflict at the Le Center plant is familiar to the area.
“This is a common issue for our community. It happens right here in Mankato, too.”
Sabrie said Tuesday he was continuing to gather information about the Le Center situation and was working to rectify the problem. He said such issues often are exacerbated by language barriers.
He said it was his understanding that half the workforce at the Le Center plant is Somali with most from the Faribault and Owatonna areas.
He said although he has done mediation sessions with Dianne’s regarding Islamic workers’ daily prayer requirements, this is the first time a clothing issue has arisen there.
He said a male Somali plant worker told him the conflict actually was more driven by how the plant implemented the new policy rather than by the policy itself.
Sabrie said the unnamed worker told him that plant protocol regarding new workplace policies typically calls for prior meetings between plant officials and worker representatives.
That was not done in this case, Sabrie said the worker told him.
“This is all about disrespecting the process,” Sabrie said of the worker walkout.
Another male Somali worker, Abdul Abdilahi, said he and his plant-worker wife walked out in tandem Monday after the workers were summarily told they had to abide by the new policy.
“They were harassing the women, one by one,” Abdilahi claimed of plant officials’ actions. He said the gist of their message was, ‘If you don’t want to do what we ask, just leave.’ “
Abdilahi likewise said normal plant procedures weren’t followed regarding new-policy implementation.
“They didn’t give us time to speak to (fellow workers) on what needed to be changed.”
Sabrie said he’ll work toward a resolution of the issue that is suitable to all parties.
“There are ways to avoid getting dresses caught,” he said, suggesting that quick tutorials for Somali female workers on how to avoid certain machinery might be all that’s required.
Plant officials Tuesday referred inquiries about the walkout to new plant owner Mike Knowles, based in Massachusetts. Knowles did not respond to a Free Press request seeking comment.
Knowles told the Faribault Daily News on Monday that the new policy was a simple matter of employee safety.
“When there’s a safety incident like that, you can’t just ignore it,” he said. “We thought we came to a reasonable resolution.”
Stacey Nickolay of Masterson Staffing Solutions in Mankato, which routinely places immigrant workers with local companies, said that firm always takes pains to ensure there are no “surprises” when workers are matched to jobs in light-industrial plants.
“Every company has safety policies, and we go over everything up front.”