Dell faces backlash after row over prayers

COMPUTER giant Dell is facing a crisis of confidence in the Arab world, following a walk out of Muslim staff in America who claim they were barred from praying. Thirty Muslims walked off the job at a Dell plant in Nashville last month, saying the company refused to allow them to carry out sunset prayers.

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By  Rhys Jones and Anil Bhoyrul Published  March 20, 2005

COMPUTER giant Dell is facing a crisis of confidence in the Arab world, following a walk out of Muslim staff in America who claim they were barred from praying. Thirty Muslims walked off the job at a Dell plant in Nashville last month, saying the company refused to allow them to carry out sunset prayers. The Muslim workers, most of whom are Somali, were packaging Dell computers through a temporary labour agency and claim they were effectively forced out of the company. A prominent US Islamic civil rights group has now been retained as legal counsel by 21 of the 30 Muslim employees who were last week forced from their jobs at the Dell plant in Tennessee. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the workers, who were forced to choose between performing the prayers and keeping their jobs, signed the retainer agreements in a meeting with CAIR in Nashville last Saturday. The incident could have serious implications for Dell in the Arab world. Last week, the leading Arab newspaper, Al Bayan carried out a survey after the incident, which revealed that 75% now have negative feelings towards Dell. Another 35% experienced anger while 30% said they were disturbed. Meanwhile, 65% of those surveyed said that the incident would likely cause a crisis between the company and its Muslim custormer. Furthermore, 55% said that the incident would affect their decision to buy Dell products in the future. A senior Dell executive in Dubai told Arabian Business: “Obviously this is something we are concerned about. It’s not the kind of news you want to wake up to in the morning. But we are doing all we can to make sure there is no adverse effect on the company.” Last Monday Dell founder Michael Dell was locked in meetings with his chief executive Kevin Rollins, as the pair discussed ways to handle the growing crisis. Dell is himself believed to have sent an email to all the company’s regional managers, asking them to release an official statement if quizzed on the walk out. “Be assured that Dell values diversity in all aspects of our operations. That includes religious beliefs, and our long-time practice is to accommodate different beliefs within the requirements of our business operations. Our practice of accommodation often exceeds that required by law, including providing both space and time for religious observations,” the statement said. But Dell’s statement has done little to quell the anger of the CAIR group. “Federal law requires that followers of all faiths be offered reasonable religious accommodation in the workplace,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director, CAIR. “An employee should not be forced to choose between his or her faith and continued employment.” Iftikhar said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires an employer to accommodate religious practices unless it causes an “undue hardship”. He claimed that hundreds of Muslims from across North America and around the world have contacted Dell in response to a CAIR “Action Alert”. In a letter, which was sent last week to Dell president and CEO Kevin Rollins, Iftikhar asked that the Muslim workers be rehired pending resolution of the issues involved. He said CAIR staffers who have experience dealing with workplace religious accommodation are available to act as mediators between the Muslim workers and Dell. “Muslims worldwide are very concerned about this case and wish to see a satisfactory resolution that takes into account both the disruption to the workers’ lives and respect for religious practices,” said Nihad Awad, executive director, CAIR. CAIR publishes a booklet, called An Employer’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices, which is designed to prevent just such incidents. Now the Metro Human Relations Commission is trying to intervene in a confrontation that pits American-style production quotas against Islam’s requirement that its adherents pray daily when the sun sets. “They [senior staff at the Dell plant] told us that we cannot pray at sunset,” said Abdi Nuur, a Somali Muslim who last week walked away from his forklift drivers job at the Dell plant because of the incident. “They told us that we would have to wait for our break,” he added. The dispute comes at a time when Dell is making major inroads into the Middle East market. Last August it signed a deal for Dell PCs and notebooks to be sold at 20 Jumbo Electronics stores in the UAE.

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