This past week the Forward carried another piece on the Postville slaughterhouse owned and managed by an orthodox Jewish concern. AgriProcessors has been accused of providing poor working conditions, substandard wages and in general an exploitative approach to its workers. According to the article, different religious groups will be investigating the charges leveled against the slaughterhouse and hopefully there will be an equitable resolution to an otherwise distasteful set of allegations.
There are two issues at play and only one of them is being dealt with. Unless both issues are dealt with the matter cannot be resolved fully. The immediate issue revolves around the conditions of employment. This, the different Rabbinic agencies will investigate and will render their recommendations. The other issue however is more systemic and more profound. It is the attitude of the certification agencies which render a plant kosher.
The certification process is a technical matter. The Shochtim performing their services must be supervised to insure the process is correctly carried out. The pre and post slaughtering of the animals must be checked to standards. All of the technicalities rendered in Hilchot Shechita must be copiously observed if the product is to receive and maintain the desired hechsher. What isn’t being monitored is the grey area - the working conditions of the laborers. The administrator at a significant kosher certification organization, Rabbi Moshe Edelstein has been quoted as saying that his organization doesn’t concern itself with the workers conditions of employment:
“We can’t get involved in issues of labor, because that’s not our job there, and they have not hired us to do that.”
It ought to be their job. The issues of workers conditions, rights and protection from harm should carry as much weight as checking for infractions of Hilchot Shechita. Shechita has to be performed with a certain method, using a certain type of razor sharp blade, and as quickly as possible so as not to cause the animal any undue pain. If the slaughtering takes too long even if the technique was correct it is rendered invalid. Underlying the correct methodology of Shechita is the prime consideration for the humane treatment of the animal and this because of the Biblical law against Tzar L’baalei Chaim. If we have to be so careful in the care and treatment of the animals minimizing its pain when rendering them suitable for kosher doesn’t it follow that the workers handling the animals should be entitled to the same considerations? It would seem logical, therefore, that workers conditions of employment as well as other labor issues should be under the purview of the various kosher certification agencies.
The ethic of Tzar l’baalei Chaim ought to carry a much broader application when dealing with issues of kosher-treif, and if as a result of poor working conditions there is a pattern of injury , illness and exploitation, the hechsher ought to be suspended pending resolution of the unethical treatment of its workforce. Thus, it would seem that the kosher certification agencies ought to put in place standards and regulations relating to the welfare of the laborer so that there are few if any repeats of this unethical conduct.