Are workers' rights a modern invention born out of the trials and tribulations of the industrial revolution? Everyone's heard of the horrors of the sweatshops, child labor abuses and other workplace issues that, sadly, sometimes still take place today.
It should be known, however, that workers' rights were a concern long before sweatshops, and that workers' rights were addressed in many different ways by the Torah. One can imagine the early labor activists, creating a placard of Deuteronomy 24:14: "You shall not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of your people, or of the strangers that are in your land within your gates." Not only does Deuteronomy 24 prohibit an employer from mistreating an employee either through physical or verbal abuse, but it is also understood to mean that an employer may not force a servant to do work that is demeaning.
In fact, the sages of the Talmud appear to have been in favor of employers going above and beyond to ensure that workers were treated fairly. For example, in Baba Metzia 83a, it is recorded that Rabba the son of Rabbi Huna confiscated the garments of some porters who had broken a barrel of wine he had hired them to transport. When the workers complained, Rav ordered Rabba to return the garments. When Rabba inquired if that was the law, Rav replied by quoting Psalms 2:20: 'That you may walk in the way of good men.' When their garments were returned, the men inquired whether they should not also receive their pay, for although the barrel had broken, they had labored all day. Rav ruled again in favor of the workers, noting that the aforementioned verse concluded "and keep the path of the righteous."
The tone of the Talmud indicates that while Rabba did not have an obligation to pay these workers, for they had been negligent in their task, it was, nevertheless, the right thing to do.
Another classic example of workers' rights in the Torah is with regard to the payment of wages. First mentioned in Leviticus 19:13, the Torah states: "...the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with you all night until the morning." When a person hires a day laborer, the worker must be paid, without delay, before the beginning of the next day.
While this seems obvious -- a man is hired to build a shed, he finishes the job and you pay him -- there are many cases and situations in which a person might not be so careful. What about the teenage babysitter for whom you have forgotten to have cash on hand? It's happened to all of us. This rule also applies to artisans: A customer is responsible for paying a worker upon receipt of the work he/she was to have done (for instance when a tailor delivers a new suit).
Often, a casual employer doesn't realize how much a delayed payment can affect an employee. Perhaps the employee has debts that are due or a babysitter that must be paid. Perhaps it is simply that the employee had intended to use the money to make a particular purchase that evening.
The Torah's views on workers' rights serve to remind us of the compassion one must always
feel for human beings.
This essay first appeared in an abbreviated form on JewishTreats.org.