"Halakhah isn't concerned about child labor."
These words came from the mouth of a rabbi at a panel at YU, on which I was a panelist. Still shocked by his words, I remain glued to the daily news of the Rubashkin trial where Sholom Rubashkin is charged with 83 child labor violations after having been found employing 57 minors. Tears rolled down one child's face as she sat in court a few days ago explaining, "I don't want to remember it," referring to her work at the Postville factory where she was exposed to harsh chemicals. Another child, a 15 year old, recently explained in court that she was de-feathering up to 45 chickens per minute on a 12-hour overnight shift. Their stories and the many others told by the child laborers brought tears to my eyes. We were enjoying kosher meat at the expense of children for years.
Was the rabbi on the panel correct in claiming that the Jewish tradition is not concerned with child labor? On the most basic level, dina d'malchuta dina (obeying the laws of the land) should suffice as a halakhic imperative to ensure that we honor child labor laws. But even further, it seems to me that the welfare of children is at the core of Jewish values. After all, why weren't children under the age of 20 counted in the Israelite census to be included in war? And why does the Pesach haggadah remind us to teach our children about freedom?
The Talmud teaches that the world continues to exist only in the merit of children in school, and that we do not divert schoolchildren from their studies even for the sake of building the Beit HaMikdash (Shabbat 119b). According to the Mishnah, one begins advanced studies at 15, gets married at 18, and does not even begin work until 20 years of age (Pirkei Avot 5:25). While the Gemarrah does acknowledge that at times children did assist their families with projects, in the Jewish philosophy, children belong in only one place: the classroom. They certainly do not belong in a corn field or a meat packing factory!
With the emergence of the concept of worker rights and child rights, the advent of the industrial revolution, and dreams of universal schooling, opposition to child labor was born in America. Under U.S. federal law a minor is defined as any person under the age of 18, and there are strict limits on how many hours a child under 16 can work. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of children are employed as farm workers in the United States today and often work more than 10 hours a day.
Around the world, there are about 158 million children aged 5 to 14 (not including domestic child laborers) stuck in the fields, factories, mines, and in prostitution rings, rather than in school. Child labor currently accounts for 32% of the workforce in Africa. There has, however, been some progress.
According to the World Bank, child labor decreased between 1960 and 2003 from 25 to 10 percent of the total work force. We can significantly change this reality by 2020 by taking action.
Affirmation of children as our greatest blessing must go beyond enrolling Jewish children in day school. It must elevate our conscience to question any business owner and any product that has robbed a child of her right to learn and grow in safety. If our banim (children) are to be bonim (builders) of our world, then we must invest in their spiritual and intellectual capacities - each and every one of them!
Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, a 4th year rabbinical school student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and a 4th year PHD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.
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