There is a temptation to justify every effort of social conscience by a verse from the beginning of Parshat Shofetim (Deut. 16:20).
Rabbi David Saperstein calls it the "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue" rationale, that is, "We are commanded to pursue justice, therefore, we must...(insert your favorite cause here)."
When it comes to supporting fair labor practices, no such manipulation of text is necessary. Throughout the Torah there are specific instructions on the proper treatment of workers. They are generally framed by a reminder from God that we know how it is to be slaves, and we must therefore show both justice and compassion for those who labor on our behalf. Wages must be fair and promptly paid (Deut. 24:14-15). A garment given in pledge must be returned each evening (Deut. 24:12). "Slaves" (really indentured servants) must be fed and sheltered, paid a wage and eventually released (Ex. 21:2, Deut. 15:12-14).
While it is true that Torah and subsequent tradition does not endorse a specific economic system, it is pretty clear from the very beginning—the story of Eden—that productive labor, designed to improve the lot of the worker and the community, is part of the dignity and purpose of human existence. When the first human beings are expelled from the garden and sent into the world, God instructs them, "by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread" (Gen. 3:19). Far from being a curse, it is a manual for survival. And that which we value for the individual should be reflected in the practices of the society in which we live.
At the risk of falling subject to my own parody, I return to the verse first cited above. If we have a contribution to make to America as Jews, it is to share the wisdom of our system of values—including the protections afforded by Jewish tradition to those who earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brows (See Lev. 5:20-23, 19:13, Deut. chapters 15, 24). Honest work should produce, at a minimum, adequate results. Just as the Biblical slave-owner was obligated to provide for the needs of his workers before meeting his own, so should contemporary employers place the living wages of their workers ahead of any but the most necessary profit margins. Our just society should expect no less.
We look around our cities today, large or small, and we see that the ideal has not been met. Not a one of us wishes for workers to be exploited, for honest people to be forced to live in poverty. Yet, we are shielded from both cause and solution by layers of bureaucracy and confusion. As individuals, our temptation is to reduce the problem to cases: we help to stock food banks, we write checks to legal aid services, we offer a dollar to the unemployed person on the street corner—well-intentioned and commendable actions, to be sure, but actions which address the symptoms and not the causes of poverty. Who, after all, can be held responsible?
One answer is at the end of the Torah portion with which I began—Shofetim—discussing not labor, but, of all things, murder. The discussion concerns the discovery of a murder victim in the fields between two cities. With no evidence at hand, it might be possible for people to throw up their hands in all innocence, decry the crime and go on with their lives. But Torah demands instead that the leaders of the nearest city, representing all of the residents, go through a complex ritual assuming responsibility for the crime and seeking God's forgiveness. Presumably, they will be inspired to take steps to ensure the safety of residents and strangers alike so that their regret will not be hollow.
Workers are most often victimized not in fields between cities, but in the netherworld between competing interests, decentralized corporations and geographically scattered investors. With no one at hand to take responsibility for low wages or inadequate benefits, we might reasonably throw up our hands in all innocence, decry the crime and go on with our lives. But until we take responsibility for our neighbors and strangers alike, seeking for them the protections from this anonymous neglect, we have not fulfilled the mandate of Torah.
We all know that not every worker is righteous and not every employer is evil—and vice versa. But we who live in privilege know the lengths to which we go to provide for ourselves and the ones we love. We hope to be rewarded for our effort and intention, fairly and adequately, whether we meet an ideal of righteousness or not. Gathered here as we are to offer thanks for God's blessings, we must earn those blessings by pursuing a just society in which all people can depend on the dignity of their work as a reflection of the purpose for which they were created.