Laban's Excuse: Labor Ethics and Community Standards

Laban and Jacob's business relationship teaches us about the importance of ensuring ethical working conditions.

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Lessons from the Text

What can we social justice activists draw from these lessons? Perhaps the answer is in another component of Jewish labor law. The Shulchan Aruch tells us that in the absence of an agreement regarding the time at which workers are to be paid, the employer must proactively follow the accepted practice of that place, e.g. to pay at the end of the week (ibid 339).

Our reading of the text elucidates a distinctly Jewish perspective on the imperative to create a just relationship between management and workers--one that is rooted in fairness and clarity of obligations. We also see how a labor relationship is one that can be defined by societal norms. For better or worse, the standards and values of a community can create a baseline for employers.

From the earliest days of the labor movement in the US, Jews have organized unions for collective bargaining and establishing contractual obligations. Many Jews continue to take leadership roles in their unions and through the Jewish Labor Council, working to establish rights and build the empowerment of others, particularly new immigrants and low-wage workers.

At the grassroots level, many Jews are organizing to raise the baseline of values and standards. Jews United for Justice (in Washington DC) and others have led the way in advocating for local living-wage campaigns that create a higher standard for their cities, while the Progressive Jewish Alliance (Los Angeles) has been at the forefront of a campaign against garment sweatshops in southern California.

Higher Community Standards

But we must also take a note of caution from the answer of Laban. We need to be vigilant against those who cite the absence of a higher community standard as their excuse for engaging in unethical practices, particularly when we as a community are watching them in other ways, as is the case with kosher food providers. These businesses seek out and accept regular inspection to obtain rabbinic certification in their pursuit of the kosher consumer. As activists, we can and should challenge kashrut supervision bodies to create a linkage between basic working standards and their seal of approval.

Such a campaign would have a meaningful impact in places like New York City, where Jews For Racial & Economic Justice is building support for the mostly Latino laborers at one kosher food factory. These workers were locked out of the Jewish-owned Tuv Taam building after they tried to unionize to address harsh working conditions and wage practices.

If the rabbis were to remove their seal of approval until the situation was resolved, how quickly might management come to the table? And is the absence of outcry from these spiritual authorities as they walk the factory floor itself allowing a new kind of "Laban's excuse?"

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Jeremy Burton

Jeremy Burton is chief of staff at Jewish Funds for Justice. He previously served as Executive Director of Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice and Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Funders Network.