Treating Workers Fairly (Leviticus 19:13)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (Lev. 19:13). Day laborers were generally poorer people who lacked land to farm themselves. They were especially dependent on immediate payment for their work, and thus needed to be paid at the close of each day (cf. Deut. 24:14-15). In our world, a comparable situation occurs when employers have the power to dictate terms and conditions of labor that take advantage of workers’ vulnerabilities. This occurs, for example, when employees are pressed to contribute to their bosses’ favored political candidates or expected to continue working after clocking out. These practices are illegal in most places, but unfortunately remain common.

A more controversial state of affairs concerns day laborers who lack documentation for legal employment. This situation occurs around the world, applying to refugees, internally displaced persons, rural citizens lacking urban residency permits, illegal immigrants, children under the age of legal employment, and others. Such people often work in agri­culture, landscaping, piecework manufacturing, food service, and small projects, in addition to illegal occupations. Because both employers and employees are working outside the law, such workers seldom receive the protections of employment agreements and government regulations. Employers may take advantage of their situation by paying them less per hour than legal workers, by denying benefits, and by providing poor or dangerous working conditions. They may be subject to abuse and sexual harassment. In many cases, they are completely at the mercy of the em­ployer. Is it legitimate for employers to treat them this way? Surely not.

But what if people in such situations offer themselves for substandard employment apparently willingly? In many places, undocumented workers are available outside garden and building supply stores, at agricultural markets, and other gathering places. Is it right to employ them? If so, is it the employers’ responsibility to provide the things legal workers get by rights, such as the minimum wage, health benefits, retirement plans, sick pay, and termination benefits? Must Christians be strict about the legality of such employment, or should we be flexible on the grounds that legislation has not yet caught up with reality? Thoughtful Christians will inevitably differ in their conclusions about this, and so it is difficult to justify a “one size fits all” solution. However a Christian processes these issues, Leviticus reminds us that holiness (and not practical expediency) must be at the core of our thinking. And holiness in labor matters arises out of a concern for the needs of the most vulnerable workers.