On the morning of May 12, 2008, dozens of federal agents descended on the small town of Postville, Iowa, for the largest workplace immigration raid in American history. At the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant, the main employer in Postville, agents arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers, and promptly deported 300 arrestees on false identity charges.
Almost four years later, the Agriprocessors raid remains a controversial subject due to its broader implications for the immigration debate. But away from the national limelight, the Agriprocessors raid has also impacted America’s Orthodox Jewish communities, prompting them to reconsider the human costs of their kosher food products.
Agriprocessors held a near-monopoly in the kosher meat industry, and revelations of worker maltreatment at the plant created shockwaves across the Jewish community. A shochet, or kosher meat slaughterer, undergoes years of training and plays a vital community role. Kosher slaughterhouses are assumed to reflect core Jewish values such as honesty and respect for others. Instead, the abuses at Agriprocessors revealed that today, kosher is often not ethical.
As Orthodox Jewish social justice leaders, we at the group Uri L’Tzedek (Awaken to Justice) sought to create a system for protecting those with the least among us. Exactly one year after the startling exposure at Agriprocessors, Uri L’Tzedek launched the Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal for kosher restaurants. To receive the Tav seal, kosher restaurants and caterers must meet guidelines for fair pay and worker safety based on city, state and federal law. Compliance officers conduct periodic inspections, and employees can report violations on an anonymous tip line.
This program relies on the carrot rather than the stick. Restaurant owners who have been given the Tav have gained significant business from free advertising, and many people will only buy kosher food with this ethical certification. As a result, the Tav seal is an incentive for restaurant owners to voluntarily uphold the rights of workers.
In addition, the program operates without any government intervention. Synagogues, schools and other Jewish nonprofits are mobilizing to ensure the rights of kosher restaurant workers, creating even greater incentive for kosher restaurants to receive certification. Last month, the 100th Tav was awarded to a kosher restaurant in America.
This program does not check workers’ immigration status, and in no way reduces the need for governmental policies that curb workplace abuse. Nonetheless, as comprehensive immigration reform continues to stall, undocumented immigrants remain highly vulnerable to the type of abuse once practiced at Agriprocessors. In an age of recession and budget cuts, the Tav HaYosher is one model for activists seeking to ensure fair treatment for all workers, regardless of their documentation status.
(Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek.)