Utah's Africans learn of their rights in the workplace
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — When Amadou Niang came to the United States from Mali, he was a Fulbright Scholar and a firm believer in being a helper in the community.
But among his fellow Africans in Utah, he saw disorganization, prompting him to form the United Africans of Utah three-and-a-half years ago.
"Our goal was to teach the community members the cultural practices of the host community, but also to give a voice to our community so the host community knows where we're coming from, what our desires and dreams are, so they will see they are not different," he said.
This objective was implemented into action Saturday at Sorenson Unity Center at a workplace rights workshop for African refugees hosted by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's Office.
Niang said the United Africans of Utah try to have events throughout the year to foster a sense of family as well as an understanding of their current environment. When they contacted the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office and were told about the anti-discrimination initiative, they felt it was a valuable opportunity.
"Workers rights and expectations — these are very important things for us," Niang said. "When they walk into the workplace they need to understand the workplace culture, but also need to know their rights so people don't take advantage of them. Hopefully they walk out of here understanding."
Erick Plummer of the Worker's Compensation Fund was one of three presenters at the workshop and told the 45 or so attendees what the program involves.
"Everyone here has to work," he said afterward. "Sometimes people get hurt on the job and don't know what to do and that's where we come in."
He said he especially hoped that those in audience Saturday realized that they don't need to fear potential injury, but learn how to get help.
"We want to help educate our community to realize it's not something to be afraid of," Plummer said of injuries on the job. "A lot of people go home and hurt because they're scared they're going to lose their job and we want them to know that's not the case."
Dan Singer, of the Utah Labor Commission's Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division, talked about a number of issues that can arise in the workplace from sexual harassment to pregnancy discrimination. He taught about minimum wage, notice of pay changes, overtime.
"It's illegal to be treated differently in a number of different aspects of the employment process," he said in his presentation.
One woman got up, one in a sea of many wearing brightly-colored head coverings, or hijabs, to ask about the headpiece, which she says led her to being fired. She said that, as a Muslim, she has to wear the scarf that covers her hair and neck. But one employer would not allow her to wear it, leading to her firing.
These are the kinds of scenarios Singer hopes to arm people against, byway of information. He said he speaks at similar workshops throughout the year.
"We want to make sure that individuals feel that they can go to work, that they can earn a fair wage, that they aren’t going to be mistreated by their boss in an illegal way and that all immigrants — or any citizens of the United States — would have equal rights to be treated fairly."
This is the education, albeit in one element, that Niang wants to see take place. He said there has not been a great problem with discrimination among the African community in Utah, but should anything arise, he wants them to have the tools they need to address the problems.
"Unless our people understand the system, they cannot navigate it," Niang said. "We want to educate them before any occurrence so if it ever happens to them, they can pinpoint it. We don't want them to be in the dark, we want them to know what to do.
We don't want them to be victims. We want them to be integral parts of the community."
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