My Path Into Labor Rights

My parents fled the Somali Civil War in the 1990s, eventually ending up in Atlanta, where I was born.

My mother was a teenager when they split up. She did not know English, but put my older brother and I into a car and drove us 16 hours north to Minnesota, where she had relatives. I grew up in Rochester and spent most of my time there. My father had been spending time in East Africa, where he remarried. My brother and I joined him in Ethiopia for a short time in 2006.

When I was 15, traveling back to the U.S., I was separated from my brother and unjustly detained for three days by Ethiopian immigration officers, who demanded $3,000.

Although I was afraid — I did not understand how long I would be away from my family or be forced to sleep on the concrete floors of the jail — I was with six other women who had been stopped at the Ethiopian-Sudan border, trying to get to Libya to enter Europe. The women had slept in the desert without food, been attacked by dogs, and been abused by immigration officers, who deprived them of water for days.

As a teenager from the U.S., I was a light of hope for them — a vision of a better life that existed somewhere. We bonded over our culture, language, and especially our Muslim faith, which grounded me and helped me to stay strong.

I was reminded that there is something bigger than my individual life. If I had been alone in that room, I cannot imagine what it would have been like.

Those three days were traumatizing, but I learned the privilege of being an American. The experience also changed me. Looking back, I see now that it was my stepping stone to a new reality — it gave me a different worldview.

I felt a sense of responsibility to use my voice for others. Eventually I became a member of the Minnesota State College Students Association, advocating for affordable public higher education. I took part in the occupation of the Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis after the unjust shooting of Jamar Clark. I stood at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in protest of the pipeline through Dakota territory.

I began to see how connection with people of color is needed to make true changes in public policy. Activism led me into organizing.

In 2017, I co-founded the Awood Center, a non-profit organization that works on behalf of economic and political power in the Minnesota’s East African community. Awood is the Somali word for power. We hold monthly trainings on topics ranging from American labor movements to the roots of capitalism and systems of power and oppression.

I believe that it is only in understanding our rights as human beings and U.S. citizens that we can move past the fear of reprisals and stand up for what is just. Without that, oppression thrives. It is people of color who will create a better balance in society. Until everyone is treated well — with safe working conditions and living wages that enable all families to thrive — the potential of our state and our country will remain limited.

Our biggest breakthroughs have come when people organized from the ground up, not the top down, to make change. It is not easy, but leadership comes from everyday people. Until we rebalance the power between workers and corporations, and between voters and politicians, our communities are stuck in a dynamic that does not live up to its potential.

I believe it is my role to help educate workers about how and why to use their voices. That is always the way labor rights have worked — you don’t get what you need until you share stories, ask in solidarity, and demand if required. That means knowing about laws that protect and talking about fears that limit. Attempting to squelch that conversation indicates something unjust is going on.

If you do not work with worker centers and labor rights, it is easy to be unaware of how common it is to deal with wages that are unsustainable, dangerous working conditions, on-the-job injuries, and sexual and racial harassment.

One of the places Awood has been especially focused on is the Amazon warehouse in Shakopee.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, there has been progress toward a $15/hour minimum wage, including at Amazon. But Amazon founder Jeff Bezos makes around $9 million per hour, so that is hardly a balanced system.

The people in the Amazon warehouse who rush to get boxes packed and delivered in record speeds should not also be struggling to afford food and housing. It is gut wrenching to me, after two years of advocating for better rights, to continue to see people suffering from back issues and painful injuries. That is why I will continue to organize, to reduce the gap in how we treat working class Minnesotans.

We tend to think that workers in China and third-world countries are the ones who face exploitative working conditions. But during the past 60 years, corporate lobbyists in this country have derailed labor laws. There are horrible practices that are dangerous to workers.


Action = Change

  • Support
  • Become an ally to the low- wage worker movement in Minnesota:
  • Attend labor rallies.
  • If you have a story to share about unfair practices, offer it. If you know of someone who has been exploited, listen.

National Attention

adapted from “Meet the Immigrants Who Took on Amazon,” Wired magazine, November 2019

In 25 years, Amazon has grown to run more than 110 fulfillment centers around the U.S., including one in Shakopee that employs more than 1,000 workers to work 850,000 square feet of warehouse. Workers stoop, squat, and climb ladders to grab items and rush them into bins for the packaging department, sometimes with a quota of 300 items every hour. Others box orders, sometimes 230 per hour. An inventory tracking system monitors whether workers hit their numbers. A large percentage of the employees at the Shakopee location are East African, many of them Somali Muslim refugees. Community connection has enabled them to negotiate with management and receive accommodations for religious practices.

As the second-largest private employer in the United States, Amazon is able to dictate terms to suppliers, local governments, and laborers. It offers jobs with competitive wages and benefits for full-time workers, requiring speed and efficiency that leads to terminations for workers who do not meet those goals. Globally, there have been reports of warehouse workers peeing into bottles in order to meet quotas, and road accidents caused by speedy delivery drivers.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires companies to log work-related injuries or illnesses that involve loss of consciousness, and treatment that exceeds basic first aid. In 2017, the Shakopee warehouse reported an average of eight such events a week, with peaks on Prime Day and the November and December holiday season. When an estimated 50 Amazon workers left their jobs at 4pm on December 14, 2018, joined by roughly 200 community members, to protest unsafe conditions, they faced police from Shakopee, Bloomington, Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Jordan, Savage, and the Scott County Sheriff ’s Office. Police armed with pepper spray formed a human barricade. The two-hour strike was the first at an Amazon warehouse in North America.