The “Kosher” Workplace

By Michelle Kornblit

In light of the shocking revelations of the unethical, and illegal employment practices at the Agriprocessor Kosher slaughterhouse in Postville Iowa, there has been a demand in the Orthodox Jewish community to insist that kosher food production must be about more than the dietary laws; kosher food must reflect Jewish ethical values through a greater accountability on the part of the kosher industry to ensure legal and ethical employment conditions. After the news broke out about the Agriprocessors plant in mid-May, consumers of kosher products have been appalled conditions that have led to the almost $10 million in fines for 96,436 illegal payroll deductions and the 9,311 criminal misdemeanor charges the owners of Agriprocessors face for employing at least 32 underage workers.

A groundbreaking campaign to address this issue in the kosher food industry has been launched by Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to empowering the Jewish community to work towards a more just world. Uri L’Tzedek has created the “Tav HaYosher,” an ethical seal for kosher restaurants in America who are committed to a just workplace. Volunteers will award this free seal to restaurants based on their dedication to three basic standards derived from federal, state, and local employment laws; the right to fair pay, the right to fair time, and the right to a safe working environment.

According to New York State law, all non-tipped employees must be paid at least minimum wage of $7.15 an hour. All tipped employees must receive their legal minimum wage of $4.60 an hour. These minimum wage laws apply to both documented and undocumented workers. A 2006 survey conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), while not a random sample survey, indicated that 13% of workers earned less than the minimum wage and 59% percent experienced overtime violations.

By law, wage workers must be paid time and a half for any hours over 40 they work a week and restaurant workers cannot legally work seven days a week. Restaurant workers must be provided with one day off a week and breaks of 20, 30 or 45 minutes according to the number of hours of which they worked. According the NYU Brennan Center for Justice, a lack of or irregular employee breaks are very common in New York City restaurants with a single meal break for a 12-hour work shift being very common.

It is illegal for an employer to subject an employee to harassment or discrimination based on their protected status, which includes race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, pregnancy, disability and/or perceived disability, and sexual orientation. Employees have a right to organize to protect their rights an interests and it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against them through threatening employees with termination of employment and benefits or calling federal immigration authorities to conduct an immigration raid. According to OSHA regulations governing restaurant safety, employees have the right to a safe, clean, and sanitary working environment.

It is Uri L’Tzedek’s goal to get New York City’s kosher restaurants and the kosher Jewish community, to get involved in ensuring employees are given the wages they are legally entitled to, given breaks and compensation for overtime, and work in an environment that treats them with respect. In an industry with widespread abuse and labor violations, Uri L’Tzedek wants make sure exploitation does not take place in kosher restaurants. One of the leading rabbis of Jewish Orthodoxy in the 20th Century, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Breuer, emphasized the importance of the connection between the kosher dietary laws and social justice, “ God’s Torah not only demands the observance of Kashrut [kosher diet laws] and the sanctification of our physical enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships. This requires the strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness which avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.” The Tav HaYosher will stress the importance of bringing employees, restaurant owners, and Jewish communities together in a commitment to the kosher dietary laws and justice.