“Do not oppress a needy and destitute hired labourer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for his life depends on them…” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). In the Torah we find such inspiring, universal and timeless statements.
And it was a Jew, René Cassin, who might have been motivated by such refrains, who co-drafted Article 23 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights concerning work. It states, among other things: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
“Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”
Some see such statements as idealistic. But the Jewish motif of “knowing slavery” underpins our obligation to uphold ethical business and employment practices. Well that – and simply doing the right thing.
Until the day he died, my grandfather-in-law answered the question “how are you?” with “I make a living”. Wrapped up in this reaction is the vitality of work, to earn a just living that provides physical and mental wellbeing and dignity.
Judaism has no problem with wealth generation, but it expects justice for those whose backs it is built upon.
The majority of Torah and Jewish employment law concerns the behaviour of the employer because, in most cases, they hold power over employees.
The exposure of a Boohoo-supplying factory in Leicester that allegedly paid workers just £3.50 an hour, offered no protection from coronavirus and had appalling working conditions, caused outrage. If true, it would be akin to modern-day slavery. Outrage was justified: we wish business well, but not by exploiting labour. We should continue our push for employees to earn a Real Living Wage.
But the outrage was also self-righteous. We have encouraged “fast fashion”. Our expectations drive an economy that seeks immediate gratification at the lowest price.
We should not ignore exploitation in the production of our goods, here or abroad.
- Rabbi Aaron Goldstein is chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors