BY TRONE DOWD
City labor advocacy groups, religious leaders and members of the Airport Workers Organizing Committee (32BJ SEIU) labor union took to the Terminal 4 Airtrain station Wednesday to protest on behalf of Muslim employees working for wheelchair assistant contractor Pax Assist, who claim they have been denied basic rights regarding their religion.
Employees of Pax Assist told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that they have been short changed on several fronts while working for the contractor over several years. Some of these discrepancies include denying Muslim employees time to pray throughout the day, not providing time to break their fast during the holy holiday of Ramadan and alleged harassment from non-Muslim managers. According to 32BJ, Pax Assist has been in hot water over the allegations as it is a violation of the NYC Human Rights Law, which grants workers of every faith the right to request and receive reasonable accommodation for religious observances “so long as those accommodations do not cause an undue hardship on the employer.”
Earlier this year, the City Commission on Human Rights filed charges against Pax Assist for these alleged violations of worker’s rights.
In an effort to pressure Pax Assist to remedy the situation, members from the respective organizations sent letters to President and CEO of JFK Terminal 4 LLC., Gert-Jan de Graaf as well as two airlines operating out of the terminal, Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airlines, to explain the allegations.
Farouq Mohamed Salia, an employee with Pax Assist for four years, told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that he faced repeated acts of discrimination during his tenure with the company. Salia said that one manager would often refuse to pay workers for sick days, despite employees being guaranteed five paid sick days every year. During religious holidays, Salia says employees were repeatedly denied chances to observe during work hours.
“I had my manager throw away my lunch,” Salia said recalling just one of the many incidents that he said occurred during those four years. “And because I chose to talk about it, I was suspended for a week.”
The suspension led to Salia walking away from the company. He has since found work as a contractor under a JetBlue partner in Terminal 5. Salia said that he has faced no such discrimination since the change in employment. Despite being happy with his new employer, Salia said that he wants to bring attention to the injustices taking place in Terminal 4 because he knows others are too afraid to speak out for themselves.
“These jobs have no protection,” Salia said. “None whatsoever.”
In addition to employee treatment, religious leaders and the 32BJ are calling for the expansion of worker protection and increased wages. The request comes just a month after terminal cleaner and 32BJ member Rabeeya Khan was allegedly attacked physically and verbally while working at the Delta Airlines Sky Club in Terminal 2. Her alleged attacker, 57-year-old Robin Rhodes, is accused of announcing his hatred towards Muslims before attacking Khan in her office. During the incident, Rhodes allegedly named President Donald Trump as someone who would “get rid” of those who practice the religion.
Salia said that he was not surprised to hear that such an incident took place, considering some of the things he says he’s seen while still working out of Terminal 4.
Imam Ayub Abdul Baki, of the Islamic Leadership Council, said that protecting workers’ rights and paying livable wages is something that needs be preserved, no matter the cost.
“These are slave wages,” Baki said. “On average, these folks work 60 hours or more a week just to make enough to pay their rent and feed their families. Anything that we can do to relieve this stress is good. Whether it’s taking that 15 minutes to pray and help keep you sane or it’s paying folks better, we should be advocating for it.”
Dr. Debbie Almontaser, Board President of the Muslim Community Network, Chiedu Uzoigwe, Community Liaison for state Sen. James Sanders (D-South Ozone Park), Tariq Mohammed of the Islamic Circle of North America, and Mazeda Uddin, Founder of South Asian Fund for Education, Scholarship, and Training (SAFEST), were all present for the Terminal 4 protest and all expressed solidarity for improved work conditions.
“Workers are standing up for their rights on the job and their rights to practice their religion free of discrimination,” a statement issued by 32BJ said. “32BJ is proud to stand with all workers, with immigrants and with everyone fighting for justice and tolerance in our country.”
Reach Trone Dowd at (718) 357-7400 x123 firstname.lastname@example.org or @theloniusly