Parashat Vayetze

Jacob the Migrant Worker

What a forefather can teach us about human rights.

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This story takes the optimism out of what I originally thought was a buoyant bumper sticker. Yet Jewish tradition responds. It condemns exploitation such as that experienced by Jacob. Deuteronomy teaches, "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" (24:14-15). Our tradition mandates that we not exploit workers--foreign or domestic. As employers, we must embrace ethical labor practices. Our tradition is telling us to read the slogan differently: to "do better" is to act in a moral way. In this case, when we act ethically, we improve ourselves: Everyone does better when everyone does better.

When Greed Trumps Morality

Secular labor law similarly concedes that treatment of workers is primarily a moral issue. This is evident in the language of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW). This document focuses on human rights and "the inherent dignity of every human person," rather than on economic concerns. Yet it is telling that only 27 countries have ratified the ICMW, none of them major migrant worker-receiving states. Greed is trumping morality in our world. Migrant workers in our own country and across the globe lack basic legal protections.

Unless we actively defend the rights of migrant workers, we are as complicit as the residents of Haran in the suffering of others. We cannot expect the millions of migrant workers to be their own advocates--their situations make them highly vulnerable, leaving them with too much at stake. Jacob is unable to effectively challenge Laban until he is independently wealthy, a mere fantasy for most migrant workers.

From the perspective of economic greed, it may seem wise for us to turn a blind eye and let this unjust tradition of exploitation continue. But perhaps there is a reason it is our own ancestor who was exploited, a role that has repeated itself in other places in Jewish history. It is incumbent upon us to speak out on behalf of migrant workers, the collective descendents of Jacob's experience, domestically and internationally.

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Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute, and The Conservative Yeshiva.