It was a hot July day and my friend and I were exhausted. As Uri L’Tzedek volunteers we had spent hours traveling around Manhattan to tell kosher restaurants about the Tav HaYosher. As the afternoon sun beat down on us, we stepped into a small, kosher fast-food restaurant. We explained the Tav HaYosher, Uri L’Tzedek’s ethical seal, to the manager. The Tav HaYosher is awarded to food establishments and caterers that pay at least the minimum wage, pay overtime to employees who work more than 40 hours per week, and maintain a workplace that respects the legal rights of their employees.
The manager stopped us short, commenting that the owner would likely not be interested because they “don’t meet the standards.” My heart sank. I glanced at the cooks in the back, working furiously to prepare the next order. In a hot room filled with hot ovens, the employees were being mistreated and denied their legal rights. There was something deeply disturbing about the juxtaposition between worker abuse and a sign in front that read in Hebrew, “Glatt Kosher.” How could we be comfortable eating food that is kosher but produced under unethical conditions? What does it mean for our food to have a stamp of approval from rabbinic organizations when there is worker abuse?
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story in the food industry. The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York reports that 59% of employees surveyed in New York City have been denied overtime wages and 13% testified that they are paid salaries below minimum wage. A shortage of workplace inspectors contributes to this abuse. The United States Census Bureau records there are 515,819 businesses in New York State, employing nearly 8 million employees. However, according to the Campaign to End Wage Theft, the NYS Department of Labor employs only 120 investigators for cases of worker abuse. There are simply not enough investigators to fully enforce labor regulations. The burden of enforcing ethical labor practices, therefore, lies with the consumers, employees, and employers.
In January 2010, the Rabbinical Council of America, one of America’s largest Orthodox rabbinical organizations, released a statement that read, “Biblical and rabbinic tradition are replete with admonitions directing an employer to promptly fulfill his or her obligations to workers, and to free the employment relationship of any degree of servitude or duress.” For example, the Torah states, “You may not oppress an employee that is poor and needy, whether he be among your brethren, or among strangers that are in your land within your gates. On the same day you must give him his wage and neither shall the sun go down upon it because he is poor and his life depends on it” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 112b) explains that if someone withholds wages from his workers, he is considered to have “taken his life.” Nachmanides adds that denying wages to a worker could directly cause his family to starve. Rabbi Yosef Karo codifies in his Shulchan Aruch that employers, at minimum, must provide conditions for employees that follow local standards. In the US, government labor laws set those standards. Those that pay below minimum wages or deny lunch breaks to their employees violate both state and Jewish law.
In 1949, Rabbi Joseph Breuer ZT”L, the founder and first rabbi of Khal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) in Washington Heights, NY, connected “kosher” to “yoshor” (rectitude), saying he would welcome a campaign to link a drive for ”Glatt Kosher” with an equally intensive one for ”Glatt Yoshor.” What can we do to prevent abuse from continuing in our community? Many Jewish business owners act in accordance with Rabbenu Yonah and “give instructions in an honorable way and pay [workers] their full wages.” However, there is a disturbing minority of Jewish businesspeople that maltreat their employees. Making the public aware of this minority would hurt those restaurants and their employees and ultimately do more harm than good. Instead, we should encourage moral business practices. As a descendent of KAJ members, I feel particularly proud to support the Tav HaYosher in fulfilling Rav Breuer’s vision.
Awarding the Tav HaYosher and championing law-abiding businesses is the most successful tactic to end abuse among Jewish owned businesses, simultaneously supporting kosher restaurants and protecting their workers. Any restaurant that proudly displays its Tav HaYosher teaches the Jewish world that not only must food be kosher but our business practices must also be “yosher.” Restaurant owners, I implore you to join this mission. If you have the Tav, display it as a badge of honor, as a sign that your restaurant is a model for the community, a beacon of light to all businesses that may still need to learn the message that employees deserve our utmost care and respect. The Torah in Deuteronomy 13:4 charges the Jewish People to “follow after G-d.” The Talmud (BT Sotah 14a) explains that following G-d means to imitate Him. Job describes G-d as an ethical employer: “For the work a man does, He will pay him” (Job 34:11). G-d is the ultimate Model for how an employer should treat his or her workers. Together with Uri L’Tzedek, let’s encourage our own community businesses to follow His example.