Q. I find my work very rewarding, but my employer is taking advantage of my dedication by making extensive demands and giving minimal pay. Can I compel the employer to pay me a fair wage?
A. We can gain important insight into your question from the Torah’s regulations regarding aneved ivri — a kind of indentured servant hired for a period of up to six years.
The Torah commands us to give the indentured servant fair working conditions:
And if your brother should diminish with you and be sold to you, don’t work him like a slave. Like a paid employee, like a freeman, shall he be with you; until the year of the Jubilee he will work with you. And then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and return to his family, and return to his fathers’ inheritance. For they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt; they may not be sold like slaves. Don’t give him crushing work; fear your God” (Leviticus 25:39-42).
As Rashi explains, the prohibition to work him like a slave and the obligation to work him like an employee means that he should do productive labor such as manufacture or field work, and not servile personal service customarily done by slaves. The mandate to send away the children implies that during the period of servitude, the children should be supported by the master. And the prohibition on crushing work prohibits busy work or other kind of demeaning labor.
In another place, the Torah commands us that when we free the servant, “Surely grant him a gift, from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your winery”, and then explains what to do if the servant wants to remain on “for it is good for him with you” (Deuteronomy 15:13-16). Here we learn that he is due a kind of “severance pay”; from the expression “it is good for him with you”, we learn that the servant’s living conditions should be comparable to those of the master. (1)
So here we have the description of the ideal working conditions: decent working conditions and employer-worker relations; enough pay so that the worker and his family are able to have a reasonable standard of living; severance pay. Does an ordinary employer have to do these things too?
Most authorities rule that while all of these are desirable in an ordinary employment relationship, they are not obligatory. An indentured servant is deprived of his liberty for a period of years; in return for limiting his freedom, the master has to take responsibility for his well-being.
But an ordinary employee can decide for himself if it is worth his while to do servile tasks, or to accept a subsistence wage, and so on. According to the Sefer Hachinukh, even an ordinary employer should always be careful of giving gratuitous labor to a worker, and should ideally pay severance pay, but even these are not binding Torah commandments but rather moral lessons derived from the commandments.
What this means is that a worker who feels that his working conditions are servile or his pay below subsistence can’t place responsibility on the employer; he has to take responsibility for himself. If he feels he is worth more to the employer than he is getting paid, he is certainly within his rights to bargain with the employer, and if necessary to threaten to quit or to actually quit. If the employee has legal or contractual rights which he feels are being neglected, such as minimum wage, overtime, comparable worth, collective bargaining agreements, etc. then of course he may take the steps necessary to enforce his rights.
The real question is how people get stuck in the first place in jobs which they feel are exploitative. Often these jobs are also “idealistic” jobs, and there is a combination of two factors at work: the employee fears that he will not be able to find a new job, and at the same time he esteems the work he does and fears that the employer will not be able to find an adequate replacement. Of course both of these factors are significant, and it may be that after reconsidering your ability to manage on your current salary and the importance to you of engaging in this work you will decide that you are not being exploited after all, but rather you are getting part of your pay in sekhar mitzvah — the reward of fulfilling a mitzvah.
But as often as not, the situation is not as grave as we depict it. Most employees are able to find jobs within a short time, and most job openings are filled within a short time, so it is worth considering if your fears are really justified. Probably the best course of action is to go to your employer and state, with all sincerity, that without an improvement in working conditions and pay you will just not be able to continue. Hopefully your next employer will treat you at least as well as an indentured servant!
SOURCES: (1) Kiddushin 15a