Treatment of Foreign Workers

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

Economic exploitation of the weak and unprotected sectors of society is unfortunately a common problem in Israel. Especially at risk are the thousands of foreign workers who are brought here by contractors looking for quick profits from their unsuspecting workers. In many cases these employers confiscate the workers’ passports, thus shutting off their ability to escape, and then provide them with very poor working conditions and minimal pay by any standard. What we have here is effectively an illicit slave trade, with the authorities turning a blind eye due to the economic benefits which can accrue from these workers.

This situation is both socially untenable and morally unconscionable. There is no justification for such abuse of the basic human right to freedom, and the social implications could be disastrous for Israel’s image as a country which is dedicated to upholding the dignity of every resident. The fact that these workers are gentiles does not permit us to take advantage of them. Our own history has taught us how hard it is to be a stranger in a foreign land, and we should therefore be extra sensitive to people who are far away from their families and homelands.

The above situation is also in stark contrast to Torah values. Even if the foreign workers do not fit the biblical category of a “stranger”, they can certainly qualify in most cases as “sojourners” (people who accept the seven Noachide laws) and thus they should enjoy both protection from exploitation and civil rights. These workers are both friends of Israel and are helping to build up the country. Many of them even risk their lives in their jobs, as was proven a few weeks ago when two Romanian workers were killed while building a fence in the Gaza Strip. Surely we should treat them at least as well as any other workers!

The concept of protecting a stranger’s rights appears numerous times in the Torah. In Parshat Naso the Torah repeats the obligation (first stated in Vayikra) to return stolen goods and to bring a sacrifice. The Torah then adds that in the event of there being no relative to reimburse for a theft, the money should be given to the priests. Chazal pondered this:-

“Can there be any Jew who has no relatives? Everyone must have a brother, sister, son or relative from his father’s family. This must refer to stealing from a stranger, who has died without inheritors.”

A stranger has no relationship in Jewish law to his previous family. If he dies his inheritance technically is ownerless. Thus if someone stole from him he cannot return it to the stranger’s inheritors. For this reason the Torah says that he must give the money to the priests, since it belongs to G-d, and he grants it to the priests. In this way the Torah is closing a legal loophole by stressing that no benefit will be derived from stealing from a stranger, and he can feel protected like any other citizen. The lesson that we can apply to our own time is that the Torah shows special sensitivity for those who can easily be exploited, and we must emulate this in our relations with foreign workers.

Chazal (Bamidbar Rabba 8) add a beautiful parable to illustrate the unique status of a stranger in G-d’s eyes:-

A king had a flock of sheep and goats which grazed in the fields during the day. On one occasion a deer chanced to come and graze among the goats. When the flock returned to their pen the deer went with them, and when they went to graze he followed them. When the king was informed of this he fell in love with the deer and commanded his shepherds to be especially careful not to hit the deer, and to give him extra drinks and food. The shepherds were puzzled and asked the king why he did not give similar commands about the rest of the flock. Said the king: “The flock did not choose to graze here and live in their pen, but this deer would normally live in the desert and does not come to live near humans. Let us appreciate the fact that he left the wide expanses of the desert and came of his own accord to live with us”. Similarly, conclude Chazal, we must appreciate the stranger who has left his kith and kin and his people to be with us, and therefore the Torah made a special obligation to return his stolen money and to atone with a sacrifice just like one who steals from a Jew.

Let us hope that the true Jewish ethic of protecting the rights of strangers will supplant the avaricious employers who mercilessly exploit foreign workers, and we will then see the fulfillment of the biblical command:

“Pursue only justice, that you may live and inherit the land”(Devarim 16:20)

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).