Worker Rights, Ethical Consumerism and the Kosher Food Industry

Adopted by the Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees
September 15, 2008
Submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism


In recent months there has been a great deal of news about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids of companies with large numbers of immigrant workers. In May 2008, Agriprocessors, Inc., the leading supplier of kosher meat in America, was the target of such a raid, with subsequent accusations of abusive practices by the company towards workers. News stories emerging from these events have resulted in renewed discussion within the American Jewish community about the kosher food industry and worker rights.

Judaism has a strong tradition of supporting the right to employment with dignity. We are taught in the Torah, "you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… you must pay out wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). Later tradition expands on this teaching by addressing not only wages but also working conditions. In Sefer Chasidim, the Book of the Pious (13th Century), Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Ratisbon built on these Biblical and Rabbinic mandates, asserting that an employer is not permitted to oppress an employee: "When someone hires a worker, he should not burden the worker too much or give him more than he can do… Even though the worker may seek it, it is forbidden to burden him more than he can handle."

Carrying on this tradition, the Reform Movement has often affirmed its commitment to the rights of workers. The CCAR spoke to this very issue in August 2008 in its resolution on "Kashrut and Hekhsher Tzedek" (cited below). The Union for Reform Judaism highlighted its concern for immigrant laborers in a 2007 Resolution on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, opposing "the exploitation of immigrants in the workplace" and encouraging "employers to maintain the highest safety standards and provide fair and just compensation for all workers." In light of recent raids of companies with large number of immigrant workers, the Union called upon the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions employ "due process and humane treatment of detainees and their families."

Over the years the Reform Movement has spoken out on behalf of farm workers, denounced sweatshops and child labor, opposed wage discrimination and supported living wage campaigns. A 2005 Workers Rights Resolution affirmed that workers should have a right to organize and bargain collectively and reiterated earlier resolutions calling for workers to be treated with dignity, to be paid a living wage and to work in a healthy, safe and secure workplace.

Given our commitment to fair treatment of workers, we are particularly distressed to witness the excesses with which the government went about enforcement of immigration laws in this case and to learn of accusations of violations of these ethical standards at Agriprocessors. When ICE agents raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, they detained nearly 400 immigrant workers, including 18 underage workers, primarily from Mexico and Guatemala. Those detained were shackled together and processed in groups in a make-shift legal procedure at the local fairgrounds. Hundreds of undocumented workers were subsequently arrested on charges of identity fraud and are faced with imprisonment and/or deportation. Women who have been permitted to remain out of jail in order to care for minor children pending hearings have been forced to wear GPS ankle bracelets and are restricted in their movements. The impact on the small community of Postville has been significant, with families separated, children afraid to go to school and communal institutions struggling to provide the services needed by the affected families.

Since the raid, former employees have accused the company of a wide-range of abuses including unsafe work conditions, the use of child labor, physical and sexual abuse of workers, requiring 11-17 hour shifts with no overtime pay, and paying wages below minimum wage. A grand jury is currently investigating these allegations. To date, the Iowa attorney general has filed more than 9,000 charges against Agriprocessors related to child labor, including charges against human resources managers, Sholom Rubashkin, former operations manager at the Postville plant and Aaron Rubashkin, CEO. Previously, two supervisors pled guilty to assisting illegal immigrants to procure false employment documents. Over the past several years there also have been repeated allegations about unethical treatment of animals at this plant, and these charges are currently under review as well.

The recent CCAR resolution aptly described our particular concerns regarding these recent events: "Those who produce kosher meat are engaged in sacred work and therefore are expected to adhere to the highest standards and values of Jewish tradition. Those who keep kosher, including the growing number of Reform Jews who are embracing the observance of kashrut, should not be forced to choose between their ritual observance and their ethical values." Abusive labor practices constitute a hillul Hashem, a violation of God's name, in the form of bringing the Jewish community into disrepute before the general community and are particularly egregious here because the kosher food industry is seen by the general public as representing the Jewish community and its values.

We note with enthusiasm the launching of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission by The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in order to create an additional certification for kosher products. This certification will let consumers know that the kosher food they purchase has not only met traditional ritual requirements, but also has been made by companies that utilize ethical business practices regarding treatment of workers, health and safety, animal welfare and environmental impact. This and similar efforts will help Jewish consumers put their values on their dinner plates.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Reiterate our call for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to treat immigrant detainees and their families fairly, humanely, and with due process;
  2. Call upon all companies that produce kosher food products to conduct their business according to legal requirements and the highest Jewish ethical as well as ritual standards, respecting the rights of workers to fair pay, reasonable benefits, and safe working conditions;
  3. Applaud and support the efforts of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission to bring worker rights and other ethical considerations into its understanding of kashrut;
  4. Join with the Central Conference of American Rabbis in encouraging Reform congregations, congregants, and others, whatever their approach to kashrut observance, to consider the guidelines to be established by the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission when purchasing food products and, in general, to become more ethically aware consumers; and
  5. Commit itself to explore the implication of the Hekhsher Tzedek approach for other types of consumer products because, as Reform Jews we believe that the imprimatur of tzedek is essential to our daily habits, diet or otherwise.