Jewish Sources on Labor
20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
What is the implication for how Jews should treat non-Jews who are in their employ?
13 Do not oppress your neighbor and do not rob him. Do not keep the wages of the worker with you until morning.
Why does this text compare not giving the worker his/her wages on the day the labor was completed to oppressing and robbing one’s neighbor?
14 Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. 15 Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them, lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you.
- Why is the hired laborer assumed to be poor and needy?
- How should Jewish employers treat workers working for them who are not Jewish?
Mishnah, N’darim 49b
Rabbi Yehuda used to go into the beit midrash (house of study) carrying a pitcher on his shoulders. He would say, “Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it.” Rabbi Shimon would carry a basket on his shoulders, and would say, “Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it."
What is the value given to work by Rabbis Yehuda and Shimon?
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 83a
תלמוד בבלי - מסכת בבא מציעא
We need [this statement] for the case in which the employer raises the workers’ wages. In the case in which he says to them, “I raised your wages in order that you would begin work early and stay late,” they may reply, “You raised our wages in order that we would do better work.”
What does this say about how employers should treat workers?
Excerpt from the Living Wage Teshuvah
2) Jewish employers are obligated to treat their workers with dignity and respect. This obligation should include, but should not be limited to, prohibitions against publicly yelling at, mocking, or otherwise embarrassing workers; forbidding employees from speaking their native languages at work; banning all bathroom breaks; changing work hours or adding shifts without advance notice; or making improper sexual comments or advances toward workers.
3) Jewish employers must pay their workers on time, according to an agreed-upon schedule, and may not pay workers with bad checks. Employers must pay workers for the full time worked, including mandatory preparation and clean-up hours. Employers who hire workers through a contractor should make every effort to ensure that these workers are being paid on time.
4) Jewish employers may not knowingly put their employees’ lives at risk by failing to provide appropriate safety equipment and training, or by knowingly forcing workers to work under dangerous conditions.
5) Jewish employers should strive to pay workers a “living wage”… When deciding among the options available, employers should not select a wage level that, while technically considered a living wage (according to a local ordinance, for example), is so low that employers know that workers will certainly need to take on additional jobs, and/or to endanger their health by working an excessive number of hours.
6) In most cases, unions offer the most effective means of collective bargaining and of ensuring that workers are treated with dignity and paid sufficiently. Jewish employers should allow their employees to make their own independent decisions about whether to unionize, and may not interfere in any way with organizing drives by firing or otherwise punishing involved workers, by refusing workers the option for "card check" elections, or by otherwise threatening workers who wish to unionize. When hiring low-wage workers or engaging contractors who supply low-wage workers, Jewish employers should strive to hire unionized workers when possible.
7) The principle of dina d'malkhuta dina obligates Jewish employers to comply with federal labor laws, even when these laws are inconsistently enforced.
8) Jewish employees are obligated to work at full capacity during their work hours, and not to "steal time" from their employers. Jewish union leaders should similarly strive to ensure that workers uphold the halakhic obligations of employees to employers. The ideal worker-employer relationship should be one of trusted partnership, in which each party looks out for the well-being of the other, and in which the two parties consider themselves to be working together for the perfection of the divine world.
- Can you find any influences from Torah or Talmud not already cited on these pages that support Rabbi Jacobs’s recommendations?
- What are the implications from Rabbi Jacobs’s teshuvah for Jews’ responsibilities to help domestic workers and unfree workers?
Excerpts from "Who Cleans Your House?"
When Jews hire people to do household jobs—anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents—we are the ones who represent a privileged class, with funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than most other Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury… Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one… And it’s time to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and “the help” (almost always female) we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs. According to Domestic Workers United, virtually all domestic workers today (and “domestic workers” is the term they prefer) are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness…
Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to Domestic Workers United, some day workers receive as little as two dollars an hour; some live-ins are paid 250 dollars a month. Domestic Workers United recommends a living wage of 14 dollars an hour. Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination—all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers…
[Gayle] Kirshenbaum [of JFREJ] described hosting a [“living room”] meeting at a home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers. “There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, but no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.”
“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like light bulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?’”
“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”
- Why are domestic workers particularly vulnerable?
- What are the challenges associated with creating fair conditions between employers and domestic workers? Why?
- How does formalizing employment conditions in a contract change the situation of domestic workers? How might it change the situation for employers, too?
- Do you think the fair treatment of domestic workers is a Jewish issue? Why or why not?