From this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei:
You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it, else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt. (Deuteromony 24:14-15)
In what can only described as irony of Biblical proportions, we read these verses on the same week that the Iowa attorney general brought a myriad of criminal charges against the owners and managers of the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant (where almost 400 undocumented workers were arrested in an ICE raid last May):
The complaint charges that the plant employed workers under the legal age of 18, including seven who were under 16, from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12. Some workers, including some younger than 16, worked on machinery prohibited for employees under 18, including “conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears,” said an affidavit filed with the complaint.
…The complaint also charges that under-age workers were not paid for all the overtime they worked and were forced to work before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., a violation of child labor laws. Agriprocessors managers “participated in efforts to conceal children when federal and state labor department officials inspected the plant,” the complaint says.
The silver lining? There is growing evidence that the Jewish world – across denominational lines – is ready to respond to the shandeh that is Agriprocessors. On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw kosher certification from the company unless Agriprocessors replaced its management and CEO. For their part, the good folks at Hekhsher Tzedek added their “Amen”:
The pressure from the Orthodox Union added to criticism of Agriprocessors from a movement led by Conservative Jews that is seeking to create an additional seal for kosher food to show it was produced according to ethical standards for wages and worker safety. The movement, Hekhsher Tzedek, praised the Orthodox Union’s “no-nonsense action,” saying it showed that the concept of ethical standards in kosher food “transcends denominational boundaries.”
A few weeks ago, I was asked by a congregant how traditional Jews could justify being so scrupulous about their production of kosher meat while being so unscrupulous in their flauting of the Torah’s clear laws against worker abuse. I’m not sure I had such a good answer, but it is gratifying that Jewish leaders are now publicly asking the same questions and demanding a response.