Sweatshops and Child Labor


Issues of workers' rights have been of concern to our people since the days of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Jacob complains that his employer and father-in-law, Laban, has mocked him and changed his wages ten times. To Laban himself Jacob says, "Had not the God of my father . . . been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and God gave judgment...." (Gen. 31:42) Similarly, the Torah states unequivocally, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute worker, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land." (Deut. 24:10)

In Sefer Chasidim, the Book of the Pious, written in the thirteenth century, Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Ratisbon expanded on this commandment. Seven hundred years ago, it was clear to him that an employer is not permitted to embarrass, insult, belittle, or degrade an employee. "To vex people who are coping with difficulties is an iniquity and a cause for punishment. Those people (workers) are sufficiently burdened already, as a matter of course, without that added affliction, as it is written in Lev. 25:53, you shall not rule over him (your worker) ruthlessly."

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) have long called for the elimination of abusive labor conditions and practices. In 1909, the UAHC spoke out strongly against the deplorable exploitation of children in the workplace. In 1961, the UAHC denounced discrimination against migrant farmers, calling on the federal government to help end these abuses and raise the status of these farm workers to a position of dignity and equality. And in 1969, the UAHC joined, and continues to support, the grape boycott intended to help secure better wages and working conditions for grape pickers.

Unfortunately, the conditions that have prompted these actions in the past persist today. Labor abuses, such as the continued prevalence of sweatshops and child labor, are as repugnant to us now as they were before. In North America, some workers are still forced to work in unsafe conditions, for upwards of twelve hours a day, at times for as little as seventy cents an hour. Abroad, children are frequently forced to labor in dangerous conditions, especially hazardous to those of a young age. In many countries, children work in near slavery, for no pay and as prisoners in factories.

Some industries and individual business organizations have adopted programs to monitor the use of child labor and sweatshops in the manufacture of the products they sell, but not all of them provide for the use of independent third party monitors who may conduct unannounced inspections of manufacturing facilities. Without independence and the right to conduct unannounced inspections, there is no assurance that monitoring succeeds in exposing child labor and sweatshop abuses.

The international community has attempted to deal with the issue of child labor. Both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 138 seek to set international standards for child labor by establishing minimum standards for admission to work, and requiring signatory nations to set a minimum age for work (which, under ILO Convention No. 138, can be no lower than 15).

As Jews, it is our responsibility to strive to ensure that all workers, regardless of industry, regardless of rank, are treated with dignity and fairness.

THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:

  1. Encourage independent third party monitoring programs, by groups such as human rights organizations, and religious organizations, that bring trained investigators to conduct independent and unannounced audits of factories and provide information on their findings to consumers. To be effective, such programs must be conducted in cooperation with those engaged in foreign manufacture;
  2. Support legislation to make manufacturers, including retailers who act as manufacturers, responsible for their contractors' violations (while retaining any right of indemnity they have against the contractors);
  3. Urge congregations to combat the exploitation of children in the workplace and the prevalence of sweatshop labor through such activities as: generating congregational awareness campaigns around the issues of sweatshop labor and child labor; sensitizing congregants to the history of sweatshops and child labor in North America, specifically in the Jewish community; and participating in coalitions and activities that seek to put an end to these workplace abuses;
  4. Commend industry programs which monitor production where independent monitors confirm that no sweatshop or child labor is being used;
  5. Encourage congregants to buy products of companies whose self-monitoring has been shown to be effective by independent monitors; and
  6. Call upon the U.S. and Canadian governments and state and provincial governments where appropriate, to:
    1. Provide for adequate staffing and funding to enforce existing workers' protection statutes;
    2. Enact legislation and take appropriate administrative measures to ban the import into the United States and Canada of products found to be made with child labor or sweatshop labor;
    3. Enact legislation that will end the egregious violations of workers' rights, both child and adult, which occur in the agricultural industry in North America; and
    4. Ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 138.