Torah places many commands on Jews. We are commanded to treat all people ethically. Regarding the workers we hire, there are specific commandments to pay promptly (Leviticus 19:13), faithfully fulfill all explicit and implicit (e.g., customary practices of employers in a particular jurisdiction) agreements (two whole chapters of the Talmud are devoted to these issues – Bava Metzia ch. 6 and ch. 7), and to not neglect threats that working conditions might impose on the lives and well-being of those who work for us (“…do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” – Leviticus 19:16). We are also commanded not to eat certain forbidden foods or mixtures which contain forbidden ingredients. We should strive to fulfill all of the commandments of the Torah which apply to us in the appropriate situations.
The laws of the Torah regarding ethical treatment of our workers stand independently of the laws of kashrut. People who are in the business of producing kosher food should be as concerned with fulfilling the laws regarding treatment of workers as they are concerned with producing food which fulfills the requirements for kosher food. However, it would be a mistake, I believe, to subsume these ethical requirements into the category of laws of kashrut. As our Sages stated, “Kol HaMosif Gore’a’-- Everyone who adds, detracts” (Babylonia Talmud, Sanhedrin 29a). Perceiving the laws of ethical treatment of workers as part of the laws of kashrut might in the future lead to a perception that such laws apply only to the production of kosher food. These laws apply universally, and we should not risk the perception that they are limited – connected to ritual requirements.
That said, it is abhorrent that a kosher food producer has been accused (apparently with substantial evidence to support the charges), of failing to fulfill agreements with workers, subjecting them to unsafe work conditions, and engaging in other violations of government labor laws. When religious Jews fail to fulfill the ethical requirements of our Torah and the law of the land in the treatment of their workers, they are guilty of hillul hashem, the desecration of God’s name – a sin so severe that God does not forgive it in the violator’s lifetime (Talmud Yoma 86a, ff.). All the moreso when these violations occur in the process of fulfilling the ritual requirements of Jewish law regarding the food we eat. If kashrut supervisors are aware of such violations and ignore them, they are caught up in that sin. Ritual tunnel-vision is totally unacceptable from a Torah perspective.
The Conservative Movement, to its credit, recently initiated a project called “hekhsher tzedek” to address this problem. The “magen tzedek” – “seal of righteousness” – will be a supplementary seal on the packages of kosher products to certify that high ethical standards have been fulfilled, as well as the kashrut standard which will be attested by the seal of the current kashrut supervising agencies. I understand that OU (Orthodox Union), the largest of the supervising agencies, is cooperating with hekhsher tzedek. For more information on this project and its standards, see http://magentzedek.org/.
Righteousness – tzedek – must be pursued in all elements of our behavior. Ensuring that tzedek is practiced at least in the production of kosher food is an important step, crucial for removing the potential for desecration of God’s name from the process. We also need to take care to ensure that the ethical requirements of our Torah not be perceived as subsumed under the ritual requirements of kosher food preparation so as not to be perceived as limited to them.
The ethical treatment of workers is already a basic component of employment law in Judaism. The respect for employees, the payment of wages on time, assuring that employeees do not labor in slave like conditions, are already operational, and have been from time immemorial.
There is an impulse to declare the food processed under nasty conditions as unkosher. As much sympathy as we may have for that stance, there is a downside that we ignore at our peril. If the food produced is condemned as unkosher, it will go to waste, itself a questionable approach since we are not allowed to waste food.
Rather than declare such food unkosher, it appears much more sensible that the agencies granting kosher certification grant such certification only to those companies that adhere to a strict behavioral code. And the contract that is signed between the company and the agency should include clauses to this effect, aside from the clauses regarding with ingredient compliance and other kosher related matters.
So, when a person eats anything that is certified as kosher, they know they are not supporting, even in an indirect way, unacceptable treatment of others.
There is no need to change the laws; there is a need to apply the laws with uncompromising commitment to fair and kind labor practices
The answer to these questions from a Reform perspective, really answers both questions at once, so in the following answer, I will not distinguish between the two questions because they are really one in the same.
The Reform approach to kashrut is far different than that of the Conservative and Orthodox movements. While there are Reform Jews that do follow more traditional interpretations of kashrut and look for the proper symbols on packaged foods and only buy meat that has been slaughtered in a kosher manner, most do not keep Kosher at all with the exception of many avoiding certain meats like pork and shellfish.Also, unlike the Conservative and Orthodox movements, the Reform movement does not have any group or individual that certifies food as Kosher for Reform Jews.
This creates, of course, different implications in terms of how Reform Judaism approaches this question.While the laws of Kashrut speak exclusively to the treatment of the animal (guiding many Reform Jews who want to honor the spirit of the law to buy free range and organic meat from stores like Whole Foods), the laws do not discuss the conditions of those responsible for slaughtering the animals and butchering them.
Of course as the laws of kashrut were developed the type of operation that major meat packers now run was completely unimaginable. That said, it is reasonable to say that the spirit of the laws of kashrut should take into consideration the treatment of the workers at a plant as Jewish Law has always had a concern with making sure that workers are treated properly going back to Leviticus Chapter 19 which commands us not to withhold the wages of a laborer.Certainly we have recently seen those in the kashrut industry violate the spirit of that commandment by using children, illegal workers and creating dangerous working conditions in the case of the Agriprocessors situation in Iowa.
Therefore, it is completely reasonable for someone who wants to abide by the spirit of the kashrut laws, whether or not that person lives by the traditional letter of the laws, to take into account the working conditions provided and wages paid by the meat packing company to those it employs. While I cannot say from a strictly halachic point of view that there is an obligation to do so, I would strongly advise anyone who wants to approach the idea of sacred eating to seriously consider the treatment of workers equally to the treatment of animals.