Last May, our organization, Uri L’Tzedek, officially launched the Tav HaYosher – “ethical seal” – to certify kosher restaurants that uphold three basic employee rights: the right to fair time, the right to fair pay, and the right to a safe work environment.
As an Orthodox organization guided by Torah and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression, we are motivated by the Torah’s prohibition “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates.”
We hear the call in Tractate Bava Metzia that “all who withhold an employee’s wages, are as if they have taken a life.” We are inspired by the example of the Amora Rav, who instructed another sage to pay his employees even though they negligently broke a barrel of wine.
In America today, employee rights are egregiously violated; current enforcement structures simply do not work. Consider the results of a recent study of employees in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles: 76 percent did not receive overtime as required by federal law; 26 percent received below minimum wage; 86 percent of workers did not receive full meal breaks, and a full 69 percent received no breaks whatsoever or had their breaks shortened by their employer.
When trying to stand up for these rights, nearly half, 43 percent, were the victims of illegal retaliatory measures: their employers fired or suspended them, cut their wages, or threatened to call immigration authorities.
The Jewish community cannot sit idly by pretending it is not our responsibility to uphold employee rights. In his landmark responsa, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, permitted drinking milk produced under the government’s watch since we can rely on the government to ensure no milk from a non-kosher animal is mixed with cow’s milk. Certainly Rav Moshe would never have done so if government oversight were seen as ineffective.
Since we cannot rely on the government to ensure restaurant employees aren’t oppressed we must find alternative mechanisms to guarantee that we aren’t mesayei l’yidei ovrei aveirah – assisting moral misconduct – when purchasing our food. The Tav HaYosher provides such a mechanism.
The Tav HaYosher’s mission, though, is to help all sides of the restaurant business. In these difficult economic times, employees and employers alike are struggling to find financial security. We work with restaurant owners as partners, because we recognize that abuse of rights has become such common practice that many owners fail to view their treatment of workers as unethical.
Moreover, paying all employees minimum wage and overtime can be expensive. For this reason, we work to publicize those restaurants with our Tav HaYosher ethical seal and encourage members of our community to patronize these restaurants. A positive campaign, we say absolutely nothing about restaurants we don’t certify.
A growing number of Jewish organizations are committing to having their lunch meetings and conferences catered by restaurants with our seals. As one kosher restaurant owner in New York reported back to us, “The Tav HaYosher is a tremendously effective marketing campaign. Since joining the Tav, we have received close to ten catering jobs we otherwise wouldn’t have had.” And as the popularity of the Tav HaYosher seal continues to grow, the added business generated by having the certification will only continue to increase.
In addition to bringing about practical change, another one of our goals is to publicly reaffirm the Jewish community’s understanding that ethical practices, in addition to ritual, are at the heart of Torah. Keeping kosher is one of the most public of Jewish actions. Through the Tav HaYosher, we proclaim, in an act of Kiddush Hashem, that worker treatment is also a core Jewish value, and we fulfill our Jewish obligation to abide by the law of the land (dina d’malchuta dina).
Since its inception less than a year ago, the Tav HaYosher has expanded exponentially. We’ve signed establishments in five states: New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and Pennsylvania, certifying more than 35 restaurants. In New York City alone we currently certify 23 eating establishments. We’ve received overwhelming support from many Jewish organizations, activists, and thousands of individuals who are committed either to buying exclusively from Tav-certified restaurants or to convincing their restaurants of choice to join the Tav.