Monday, June 25, 2007

How does God require employers to treat employees?

Rabbi has initiated the conversation with a unique proposal
by LYN JERDE (Telegraph Herald - Dubuque, IA)

I'm not 100 percent sure of the proper pronunciation of hechsher tzedek. But I'm so intrigued by the concept, I wonder if it ought to extend beyond Judaism and be embraced in some form by all religious faiths.

A hechsher tzedek is a declaration that Minnesota rabbi Morris Allen proposes to include on kosher food products -- that not only were the slaughtered animals treated humanely in accordance with Jewish law, but also that the workers in the slaughterhouse were treated with justice.

The idea stemmed from Allen's visits to Agriprocessors, a world-famous kosher meat production center in Postville, Iowa. Originally, he came to the Agriprocessors plant to lobby for the availability of less expensive cuts of kosher meat.

But, when Allen talked to an employee on the killing floor, the employee said he had worked around rabbis for 10 years -- and while the rabbis always were concerned about the humane treatment of the animals that were being slaughtered, they'd never asked the worker, "What's it like for you to work here?"

Humane treatment of employees is at least as vital a component of Jewish ethics as humane treatment of livestock, Allen suggested in an article written by Pam Miller, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's top-notch religion reporter.

Miller also reported that Agriprocessors takes issue with assertions, published in a 2006 edition of the Jewish newspaper "The Forward," that its workers are mistreated. With only third-hand information, I'm in no position to judge that specific workplace.

But I applaud Allen for raising a question that rarely makes its way into current religious rhetoric: What does God require in terms of how employers treat employees?

I'm not talking strictly about legality. Lawmakers and lawyers are mired in sticky job-related issues, including wage and benefits, workplace safety, unions, immigration, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the power and limitations of labor unions.

I'm talking about the one-on-one relationship between God and anyone who, in any way, benefits from the labor of others, from the CEO with an eight-figure income to the homeowner who pays a neighbor kid to mow the lawn.

If one wanted to label one's products, or oneself, as conforming to hechsher tzedek -- as meeting God's standards for justice -- what would be the criteria?

I believe it would require more than minimal conformity to the letter of existing secular statutes regarding wages and working conditions.

I believe it would require, at times, that an employer utter a business blasphemy -- that justice for workers has a cost, but some things matter more to God than the amount on the bottom line.

And, yes, I believe it must inevitably include a conversation about God's requirement that workers treat their employers with justice, too.

If Allen were to implement his idea -- if Jewish authorities were to start stamping kosher products with some sort of hechsher tzedek seal of approval -- it would be a daunting task to establish the standards and oversee their enforcement.

But it's a good work, a mitzvah, that Allen even initiated the conversation.

I hope it prompts people of all faiths, whether they're employers or employees or both, to search their scriptures and their souls.