I would like to address with my 8th grade class the recent articles and reports that workers at iPad factories in China are mistreated. What is our obligation as Jews? Should we boycott? Protest? Write letters? How should we seek justice? I could use some specific quotes from sources that will assist me in pointing them to how we should consider this issue as Jews. Thanks.
We are certainly a culture that likes our electronic toys. And we also want a good price on the things we consume. Balancing those two competing values is a real challenge in the contemporary world and I don’t blame Apple or other companies for having a hard time trying to figure out their consumers and determine which ones we think are most important. In full disclosure, I own an IPhone and I live in the Silicon Valley, where Apple and other tech. companies are king. But I do believe that there are things we are taught by our tradition to do in the face of the unethical treatment of workers.
Our foundational story as a people is that we were once enslaved in Egypt. But we became a free people in a free land. We learn from this (and the torah mentions dozens of times) that we cannot stand by when others are being oppressed. Whether enslaved or just treated unethically, Jews have an obligation to stand for equality and justice. And we constantly remind ourselves of our past when we recite mi hamoha or kiddush or any of the other blessings which recall our exodus story so that we never lose sight of that obligation.
In the Talmud, we are told to pay workers a fair wage and to treat all people with respect. Baba Metzia instructs us that, “One who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life.” It equates the unethical treatment of workers to murder. In reality, that is all too true as we see suicide rates rise in factories where people are treated horribly. But perhaps the most effective and simple rule comes from Leviticus, which teaches us that, “You shall not rule over him [your worker] ruthlessly.”
In the end, it is hard to determine what fair is. With all the variables of the cost of living, quality of life and other issues at play, it is incredibly complicated, and I don’t inherently blame Apple or other companies for missing the mark. Our tradition is about seeking perfection, not about attaining it.
But we should also follow our obligation to struggle on the side of those who are oppressed. Clearly there are ethical issues with Apple and how the company treats their employees – and we should speak up and rebuke the company to encourage better practices, so that they follow our tradition’s teaching of not ruling over employees ruthlessly. Given the fact that Apple’s new CEO has made public statements of apology and is clearly trying to make changes, I think that letters, emails, and phone calls encouraging that practice and reminding the company of its obligation to the world community as a tech giant would be well in order.
Judaism has exhibited serious sensitivity to the treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish workers from Biblical (Leviticus 13:19 and Deuteronomy 24:14-15, the latter of which seems to include non-Jewish employees of Jewish employers) through Rabbinic (Mishnah Bava Metzia 7:1 - a nuanced approach) and into modern times (R’ Ovadyah Yosef’s Yechaveh Daat 4:58 - on unions and strikes). Our tradition recognizes that wage workers do not have the upper hand in their working environments, and their employers must be vigilant in paying them on time and assuring them basic rights. Jewish tradition also demands that workers display good faith in their work and devote their working hours to diligently working for their employer.
One of our first obligations as Jews is to do our due diligence in understanding the facts of any case. To the best of our capability, functioning here as activists, not judges, we should attempt to read reliable reports about the treatment of these workers and not jump to conclusions.
In the realm of obligation, I am hard-pressed to suggest what is formally incumbent upon us to do in this case, even if we find injustice - here we are responding to a situation of non-Jews employing non-Jews. However, that should not stop us from taking some action. In the realm of meritorious and valuable action, I think it is a wonderful educational opportunity to study the texts of worker treatment with your students and decide together (or each individually) what action you choose to take. Composing a letter to Apple, or personal decisions regarding purchase of Apple products, can be appropriate (albeit very different) ways to express our Jewish values. However, I must stress that almost every product has a complex history, and students may want to articulate why they are choosing this issue and this company among others.
Among the Jewish laws whose application may not include this case, but whose general values are relevant for study with your students (some were mentioned above), are:
“Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16)
“Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” (Leviticus 19:13)
“Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
“When workers are performing activities with produce that grows from the earth, but the work required for it has not been completed, and their actions bring the work to its completion, the employer is commanded to allow them to eat from the produce with which they are working. This applies whether they are working with produce that has been harvested or produce that is still attached to the ground…” (Maimonides Laws of Hiring 12:1 via chabad.org - these latter chapters of the Laws of Hiring are a wonderful resource)
I highly recommend Chapter 5 of Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ recent book, “There Shall Be No Needy”, for a wonderful collection of sources and analysis on this topic. There you will find translations and discussions of many of the sources cited here. Good luck!
The Jewish people as a nation begin as a result of poor labor conditions. Our first national story is of a ‘walkout’ due to poor conditions and pay; we call it ‘Yetziat Mitzraim’, the Exodus from Egypt, and ascribe our success to God, remembered twice daily in the Sh’ma nad V’Ahavata prayers, and celebrated as a holiday each year at Pesach time.
Jewish law has a long list of expectations for how workers are to be treated. Pay, benefits, working conditions, on-the-job injuries are all legislated. The right for workers to have a voice through striking and negotiating contracts is also well established. These sources begin in the Torah (ex: ‘Pay him his wages that day, for he is poor and relies on them’, Deut. 24:15) and continue into the Talmud (Mishnah BM 7:1, Talmud Bava Metzia 83a for example), and the law codes of Maimonides, Yosef Karo, and even to 20th c. rabbi, Rav Moshe Feinstein.
That doesn’t even include the proud Jewish tradition in labor organizing from the founding of International Ladies Garment Worker Union, to the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster of 1911 and Jewish leadership to this day in unions for service workers, teachers, and laborers. Jews have always cared about labor.
The laws generally apply to Jewish employers and Jewish workers. Jewish consumership, however, is not regulated as such. In Talmudic times, the notion of a product assembled in 12 countries and transported thousands of miles didn’t exist. But while our texts don’t explicitly bar Jews from buying products that are produced in an unjust manner, it is not hard to assume that God does not approve of the types of abuses occurring at factories in Asia to manufacture electronics. We as Jews cannot tolerate oppression and injustice anywhere; we should strive to end it, and we certainly should try our best to avoid spending our dollars on things produced in an unjust manner.
Boycotts are hard things. To be effective, it would take literally millions of people to stop using products of companies that employ unfair or abusive labor practices. At this point, there are simply too many people to organize and too many products that are the reult of unfair labor practices. That being said, in the 1960’s, Jewish leaders declared table grapes ‘un-kosher’ during the strike of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers towards vineyard owners. I think contacting your legislators, raising awareness in your community- with parents, students, and with your synagogue- would be a more effective first step; a boycott might be a good idea, but not yet.
Your question is excellent since everyone wants an iPad! But, as a Jew, we are also obligated to ask the question rarely asked, "At what cost?" There is always a history to everything. And, what applies to an iPad also applies to the diamond ring on your finger, the meat you eat, the car you drive, etc. At the bottom of every single thing you buy is an issue of economic justice.
Here are some pertinent sources for you:
From the Mishneh Torah - Maimonides - Gifts to the Poor:
You are commanded to provide the needy with whatever they lack. If they lack clothing, you must clothe them. If they lack household goods, you must provide them...You are commanded to fulfill all of their needs, though not required to make them wealthy.
From the Torah:
When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter the person's house to seize the pledge. You must remain outside, while the person to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is needy, you shall not go to sleep in the pledge; you must return the pledge to the person at sundown, that s/he may sleep in his/her cloth and bless you; and it will be to your merit before Adonai your God. You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay the persons wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for s/he is needy and urgently depends on it; else s/he will cry to Adonai against you and you will incur guilt
From the Torah
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God.
From Maimonidies, Mishneh Torah
If a poor man requests money from you and you have nothing to give him, speak to him consolingly. It is forbidden to upbraid a poor person or to shout at him because his heart is broken and contrite...for it is written ( in Isaiah 57:15), "To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite."
From the Midrash:
There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty; it is the most terrible of all sufferings. Our sages have said: If all troubles were assembled on one side and poverty on the other, [poverty would outweigh them all]. When a man is rich and has a poor relative, he does not acknowledge him; for when he sees his poor relation, he hides himself from him, being ashamed to speak to him, because he is poor.
.....There are dozens and dozens of texts dealing with economic justice. Above is just a sampling. So what do we do with your question?
Whenever anything is created and assembled in countries without regard to labor laws, the workers are more than likely being exploited and abused. Only recently are the Chinese workers demanding - and getting - better pay and working conditions. But the truth is that in most countries without proper labor laws and enforcement, workers get the short end all the time. In Apple's case, the company has been so embarrassed by this that they are putting on their website the results of the audits they do so that people can be assured that the workers are treated well, etc. You can find the audits here: http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/
You have a choice, of course: you can believe the audits or not. If you do, then everything they say is true all everything is rosy. If not, then you have a choice whether or not to take action. Action, in this case, means boycott.
In my own home, we have indeed boycotted several items. We will not eat veal in any form. We will not buy chicken from companies that have been documented to abuse their animals. Diamonds are forbidden unless they are certified that they are not blood diamonds, etc. The ethical treatment of people and animals is a priority in our home and that sometimes means we have to deprive ourselves of something nice.
As Jews, we have an obligation to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and to be merciful and just in all our ways. To do any less is to ignore the prophets' calls.
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