Soon after Hibaq Mohamed immigrated to Minneapolis from Kenya, where she had been living as a refugee, in 2016 she got a job at a new Amazon warehouse near the city. At first, she enjoyed packing boxes for delivery to consumers.
But over time, she said, Amazon required her and her co-workers to pack at a faster rate, at least 230 items an hour, up from 160. Ms. Mohamed, who is Muslim, said that Amazon let her take paid breaks to pray, as required by state law, but that her managers had told her that she still needed to keep pace.
“There is just pressure,” Ms. Mohamed, 24, said. “The people they don’t fire worry one day they will be fired.”
Ms. Mohamed and scores of East African colleagues, many of them, like her, born in Somalia, responded in an unusual way for Amazon workers: They organized to complain.
Now, tied together by a close cultural connection and empowered by a tight labor market, they appear to be the first known group in the United States to get Amazon management to negotiate.
After modest protests over the summer, the workers have had two private meetings with management in recent months. Labor organizers and researchers said they were not aware of Amazon coming to the table previously in the United States amid pressure from workers, even for private discussions.
Last week, Amazon offered some compromises at its facilities in the Minneapolis area. The company said it would require a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity rates, designate a manager to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly.
By Saturday night, though, a group of about 40 workers had decided the compromises were insufficient, with a primary concern being the pace at which they are expected to work. They voted to stage a large protest and walkout on Dec. 14, in the thick of the holiday season.
“Each community is a little different, and in each one, we work to ensure our employees have a great experience with the most important element being our direct connection to our employees,” Amazon said in a statement.
Ashley Robinson, a company spokeswoman, added that the company did not see its work with the East African workers as a negotiation but rather as a form of community engagement similar to its outreach efforts with veterans and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.
To workers, the formal meetings were the result of more than a year of organizing by the Awood Center, a nonprofit focused on helping East African workers.