Q. My workers get a low wage and have trouble making ends meet, but they don't really have other options. Do I have to pay them a "living wage"?
A. The Torah educates us towards an attitude of concern for and empathy with the needy. "When there will be a needy person from one of your brothers in one of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, don't harden your heart nor shut your hand to your needy brother. Surely open your hand and lend him, enough for his need which he lacks... Surely give him and let not your heart grieve when you give him, for because of this will the Lord your God bless you in all your acts and in all your endeavors" (Deuteronomy 15:7-10).
The best way of fulfilling the mitzvah to help a needy person is to do this in a way that maintains both his dignity and his independence. One way we can see this is from the verse we just cited. While it is possible to help a needy person either through a gift or a loan, the verse states "lend him", hinting that this is the preferred way of giving aid since it encourages independence and transmits a vote of confidence that the person will emerge from his troubles.
The Torah also tells us, "When your brother falls and his hand declines with you, strengthen him, whether the stranger or the resident, that he may live with you" (Leviticus 25:35). Rashi explains that the expression to "strengthen" or "support" him means not to wait until he actually falls (financial collapse) but rather to empower him beforehand so that he shouldn't fall in the first place.
And the mishnah states: "Have poor people as members of your household." (1) The Talmud implies that this means we should preferably hire poor people as household help, so as to help them out of their predicament. (2) Here too we see that hiring someone is a preferred way of helping them. In fact, some authorities suggest that while normally a job offer may be revoked, an offer to give a job to a poor person can be considered like a promise to give charity, which is considered like an oath or vow. (3)
Every person has a limited budget as well as definite priorities for charity. It is not always practical to give charity to one's employees by giving them a higher salary than they could be bargained into. But the fact that decent salary and working conditions is an ideal fulfillment of the commandment to help others should have some weight in the question of what working conditions to provide, if the employees are needy. Normally we give precedence in charity to people in our community and circle of acquaintance; for most employers workers would fit this category and are worthy charity recipients if they are needy.
This is especially true in the case of a company which has a commitment to give a certain amount of money to charity. Employees should be a high priority; any excess salary given to a poor worker can be considered a contribution to charity from a Jewish point of view.
Like the other considerations we have discussed in previous weeks, the obligation to be generous to the needy doesn't create any definite obligation to provide minimal working conditions and benefits to workers. But it does add one more good reason to be thoughtful and generous regarding the work environment, particularly for someone who employs poor workers.
SOURCES: (1) Mishnah Avot 1:5. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 60b (3) Sources found in Pitchei Choshen Sechirut 7:5, 8:29.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.