Labor, Technology and the Torah
Labor celebrations have taken place throughout North America since the 1880s, and Labor Day became an official U.S. holiday in 1894. As students of history are well aware, in the decades surrounding the start of the 20th century the working class that emerged from the Industrial Revolution fought to be treated fairly.
Judaism has always valued the rights of workers. In fact, three thousand years ago, the Torah declared such fundamental laws as: “You shall not oppress your fellow, and you shall not rob; the wages of a worker shall not remain with you overnight until morning” (Leviticus 19:13). The sages refined these rules even further. Take for instance the Mishna quoted in Baba Metzia 83a: “One who engages laborers and demands that they commence early or work late-where local usage is not to commence early or work late, he may not compel them. Where it is the practice to supply food [to one’s laborers], he [the employer] must supply them therewith; to provide a relish, he must provide it. Everything depends on local custom.”
Unions and labor laws had greatly curbed the worst of the abuses of the workplace. The decades surrounding the start of the 21st century have introduced entirely new challenges. As fewer people work in labor related jobs, different questions affect employers and employees.
For instance, as technology brought the world into the information age and high speed internet has knocked down the constraints of office walls and office hours, how does one define overtime? If an employer provides an employee with a smart phone, must the employee be available at all hours?
Many such issues are defined with reference to “corporate culture,” and thus local custom. The use or abuse of modern technology, while not a direct question addressed by the sages or the Torah, may depend on an employer’s honest assessment of whether such action transgress the prohibition of “oppressing” one’s fellow.
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