Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Jewish Organizations Fight For Worker Safety In Kosher Slaughterhouses: "Thou shalt not rule over him with rigor."

I wrote last July about serious workplace safety hazards in an Iowa Kosher meatpacking plant, revealed in an article in Forward. In response to the allegations, two Conservative Jewish organizations, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, launched fact-finding studies.

One of those organizations has now decided that something needs to be done:
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is drawing up standards for a proposed hekhsher tsedek, or righteous certification, attesting that employees worked in safe factories and weren't exploited, among other things. The new certification would supplement, not replace, the kosher certification.

"No one in the Jewish world has ever really tried to marry the socially responsible laws of how we treat workers with the laws of how we should eat," said Rabbi Morris Allen, who chairs the committee studying the new certification.

"We were so concerned that the animal is slaughtered in the most humane way," he said, "that we overlooked the person standing right next to it."
Allen argues that the bible mandates that workers be treated humanely:

Just as the Bible dictates how Jews should eat, it also outlines how they should treat workers, Allen said, quoting from Leviticus: "Though shalt not rule over him with rigor."

Rabbi Ari Cartun of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto applauded the proposed certification and it would "absolutely" influence his grocery shopping.

"You're not able," he said, "to benefit from oppression."

Some conservative Jewish organizations aren't convinced, however, preferring to keep their heads in the sand and rely on the government to enforce workplace safety conditions:

The Orthodox Union has no plans to create a workplace certification.

"It's not that we don't care about those issues, but we rely on the federal government," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator for the OU's kashrut division. He noted that agencies like the Department of Labor and OSHA already keep a watchful eye on workers' pay and working conditions.

"We don't want to impose more on those companies than are required by law," said Genack.

No, of course not. The law and OSHA are doing such a good job.

Rabbi Allen remains skeptical (and well informed):

But legal standards can fall short of religious ones, argued Allen. For instance, is it morally proper to require minimum-wage workers to buy their own mandatory safety equipment? he asked.

Allen is referring to proposed standard that would require employers to pay for personal protective equipment which the Bush administration has delayed issuing for six years. The AFL-CIO and UFCW sued OSHA earlier this month to force the agency to issue the regulation.