Muslim meatpackers fired in Ramadan work dispute

DENVER (Reuters) - Meat processor JBS Swift & Co. has fired 130 Muslim workers after they refused to return to work in a dispute with the company over Ramadan fasting and meal breaks, company and union officials said on Thursday.

Manny Gonzales, spokesman for the United Food Workers Commercial Workers Local 7, said the employees were “unjustly terminated” from the meatpacker’s plant in Greeley, Colorado, about 60 miles northeast of Denver.

“They (the workers) were not given adequate notice that they would be let go,” Gonzales said. “We will file grievances for those who want their jobs back.

Swift, owned by Brazilian meat company JBS, the world’s largest beef producer, had another dispute with Muslim workers last year at the company’s Grand Island, Nebraska, plant. Several workers were fired after leaving their jobs to pray at sunset.

In announcing the firings, Swift spokeswoman Tamara Smid said the company adjusted its meal breaks to help workers concerned about observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Those dismissed, she said, lost their jobs for violating a collective bargaining agreement, not because of their faith.

“JBS is grateful to employ a multicultural work force and works closely with all employees and their union representation to accommodate religious practices in a reasonable, safe and fair manner to all involved,” she said.

The dispute began when 220 Muslim workers -- mostly immigrants of Somalia and other East African nations -- walked off the job this week after supervisors denied them a food break at sunset.

During Ramadan, devout Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

The workers were suspended for an “unauthorized work stoppage” and were told to return to the job or be fired, Smid said.

Despite the failure of negotiations between management and the union to resolve the dispute, some of the employees returned to work, but the 130 who did not were terminated.

Many of the African immigrants were hired at the plant after a 2006 raid by U.S. immigration authorities resulted in the detention of 1,300 Swift workers in six states. Most of those workers were Hispanics whom the government said were in the United States illegally.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier Briand