Exploitation Isn't Kosher

By Allison Johnson 07-31-2008

Kosher law forbids you from boiling a calf in its mother's milk. But how are human mothers who work in slaughterhouses being treated? In the wake of revelations about the working conditions at kosher slaughterhouses, some rabbis are demanding a higher standard of worker treatment -- and they're willing to lay down the law. It is estimated that more than 350,000 U.S. households keep kosher, or follow the strict set of dietary laws outlined by the Hebrew Bible. Before the May immigration raids in Postville, Iowa, the Agriprocessors plant there run by an Orthodox family supplied 60 percent of the nation's kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher poultry.

Stories are pouring out of Postville about the inhumane treatment of the immigrant workers. Underage workers were arrested in the raids, some as young as 13. Many workers were forced to put in overtime without extra pay or breaks. Vulnerable people were exploited by religious business owners who systematically violated immigration and workplace laws. Rabbi Morris Allen had firsthand experience with the workers and their conditions in Postville and decided a moral response was necessary.

His alternative certification philosophy is rising in popularity and has been endorsed by several progressive Jewish groups. Hekhsher Tzedek, which means "certificate of righteousness" in Hebrew, goes a step beyond current kosher guidelines. An additional seal of approval on existing kosher meat products would mean it was processed and packaged in compliance with a set of social justice criteria in keeping with the teachings of the Jewish faith, including wages and benefits, workplace safety, environmental impact, and corporate transparency.

Many people may not have known about the worker injustices at a meat plant in a small Iowa town, but the raid has sent aftershocks felt by those who keep kosher at the dinner table. The Boston Globe published an article about the differing opinions of Orthodox and Conservative Jews on the issue and responses to Rabbi Allen's proposed certification. If anything, the Postville raid has opened up conversations about how people of faith look at the products they consume and the value we place on the treatment of those who prepare it. We should not allow this issue to focus on just the kosher meat industry. Rather, we should be compelled to look at where all our food comes from and explore ways to spend our dollars that support businesses that treat their employees with dignity and value justice in the workplace.

Allison Johnson is the policy and organizing assistant for Sojourners.

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