Q. Is an employer obligated to provide decent working conditions?
A. We explained last week that the main obligation of employers in Jewish law and tradition is to keep their word -- not to provide any specific level of wages and conditions. However, despite the absence of any binding formal requirement, there are a number of salient ethical principles which create a certain level of moral obligation. One we mentioned last week is lifnim mishurat hadin, making a compromise even when the strict law is on your side in a case where sticking to the letter of the law would lead to an unfair outcome given the special circumstances of the case. This week we will discuss an additional consideration which is often applicable.
When it comes to the rights of workers, the Torah mainly insists that any agreements be honored. No specific conditions are mandated. However, this is not true for an indentured servant (eved ivri). The Torah does impose extensive responsibilities on the employer/master of such a worker.
An indentured servant is a Jewish man or woman who is sold into service for a period of up to six years. In some cases these people sell their own services; in other cases they are sold in order to provide restitution for serious property crimes. (The Torah does not prescribe imprisonment for such crimes; the overall Torah approach is one of rectification rather than penalization.)
For example, it is forbidden to give an indentured servant demeaning work as if he or she were a chattel slave. Only tasks of the kind conventionally given to hired workers are permitted. "As a hired worker year by year shall he be with him; don't give him crushing labor in your sight" (Leviticus 25:53).
Another example: the Torah commands the master to give "severance pay" to the parting servant after his years of servitude are completed. "Surely grant him of your flock and your threshing-floor and your wine press; what the Lord has blessed you give him (Deuteronomy 15:14). This gift is meant to enable the newly independent worker to get an economic start in life, in an occupation wherein he acquired experience and "on the job training" by the master.
The Torah acknowledges that sometimes an indentured servant wants to stay beyond the mandatory six years, because he appreciates the job security and working environment he enjoys as a servant. "If he should say to you, I will not go out from you, for he loves you and your household and it is good for him by you" (Deuteronomy 15:16). From this verse, the Talmud infers that it is the obligation of the master to ensure that it is indeed "good for him". The indentured servant has to be treated like an ordinary member of the household. "It is taught: 'for it is good for him with you' – with you in eating, with you in drinking. So it shouldn't happen that you eat white bread while he eats coarse bread; you drink old wine while he drinks new wine; you sleep in a bed of fleece while he sleeps on a bed of straw." (1)
It is clear that the Torah here does prescribe a specific minimum level of support for an indentured servant; he has to have a living standard comparable to that of the master's and has to be given severance pay.
How would these strictures be applied to an ordinary worker? According to one opinion, all commandments applying to indentured servants apply also to hired workers. (2) But most authorities disagree with this; the special rights of an indentured servants are necessary safeguards given the fact that he is denied his freedom. But an ordinary worker is perfectly free to agree to menial or demeaning labor as long as the recompense is sufficient for him.
Even so, we find that the Sefer Hachinukh (an early guide to the rules and ethical messages of the commandments of the Torah) repeatedly reminds us that the underlying reasons for these commandments can also apply to ordinary workers. For example, regarding the prohibition on demeaning labor, he writes: "Even though it is not obligatory nowadays, because there are no indentured servants, even so it is appropriate to take care with this commandment even today with poor people in his household, and to be very scrupulous about it. And he should remember that wealth and poverty are a revolving wheel in the world." (3)
This would apply particularly to a domestic worker, for this is the situation of an indentured servant as well as the example of the Sefer Hachinukh, who refers to "poor people in his household."
Likewise, regarding the commandment to give the parting servant a substantial gift to give him a start in life, the Sefer HaChinukh writes: "Even nowadays the wise person will hear and learn the lesson, that if he hired a fellow Israelite who served him for a long time, or even shorter, that he should grant him at his departure from whatever blessing he obtained from God." (4) And we find that many contemporary authorities cite this mitzvah as one rationale for mandatory severance pay as it is customary nowadays. (5)
So while the Torah does not mandate any particular level of salary or working conditions, the privileges given an indentured servant point to an ideal of a workplace where the worker has access to basic amenities as accepted among normal households, and a workplace which demonstrates appreciation for achievements and contributes to the worker's independence. These ideals will not be applicable in every workplace or in every situation, and after all someone does need to be hired to do menial tasks! But, as the Sefer Hachinukh, points out they are something to keep in mind, and to make the employer display empathy and give some thought to how he would feel as an employee in his own workplace.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 20a. (2) Responsa Maharam Rotenburg IV:85. (3) Sefer Hachinukh 346. (4) Sefer Hachinukh 482 (5) See e.g. Responsa Minchat Yitzchak VI 167.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.