Thanks to the terrific group, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) for alerting me to the kosher meat boycott currently roiling parts of the Jewish community coast to coast. It turns out that AgriProcessors, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, seems to be guilty of some ugly union busting and targeting of immigrants that has outraged at least a portion of the Orthodox community.

The allegations against the company — which produces sixty percent of the beef and forty percent of the chicken provided to the kosher marketplace — include a pattern of knowingly exploiting undocumented workers with sub-standard pay and severe workplace mistreatment; violation of child labor laws by putting children as young as 13 to work and reports of floor supervisors physically, verbally and sexually abusing workers.

AgriProcessors has been cited multiple times by federal and state regulators for food-safety, environmental, labor and animal-cruelty violations. The company was also the site of a recent immigration raid as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials closed the plant and arrested 389 workers for immigration violations. Far from properly punishing any criminals, the action was, in fact, “A Raid on Fairness,” as the Boston Globe called it in a strong editorial on May 24.

If the government wants to send a message, it ought to pay more attention to prosecuting abusive employers who hire undocumented immigrants and mistreat them by withholding pay or doling out verbal and physical abuse. So far, no officials at AgriProcessors have been charged.

Glaring allegations of such abuse can be found in the search warrant application that officials submitted to raid Agriprocessors. In one case, a former worker told federal agents about finding a methamphetamine lab on the company premises. The former worker spoke of having destroyed part of the lab and said that this led to a physical confrontation with an immediate supervisor and, eventually, to being fired.

A federal informant who worked at AgriProcessors told officials about workers who appeared to be undocumented having trouble getting paid. In one case, a supervisor put duct tape over a worker’s eyes and hit him with a meat hook, without, the warrant says, causing serious harm.

The violations were first reported by a Jewish newspaper, the Forward, prompting Jewish advocacy groups to note that Jewish law protects workers and forbids inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.

Picking up on that theme, Uri l’tzedek, a group established to serve and inspire the American Orthodox Jewish community towards enacting social justice, is asking the estimated one million Americans who observe kosher restrictions to consider whether a company can meet religious standards if it violates ethical ones.

Uri l’tzedek’s conclusion is clear by its petition drive calling on Agriprocessors to pay its workers the minimum wage of the land, to recommit to abide by all federal, state and local laws including those pertaining worker safety, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and the rights of your employees to collective bargaining and to treat its workers according to the standards that Torah and halakha places on protecting workers–standards which include the spirit of lifnim meshurat hadin, going well beyond the bare minimum requirements of the law.

And for those history buffs among you, Kosher meat boycotts have a storied tradition. The first recorded kosher meat boycott in the US took place 1902 and was an early demonstration of the rising political consciousness of Jewish women in New York City’s ghettos. Most of the boycotters were not yet American citizens, but they had lived in America long enough to observe the organizing strategies of the nascent labor and women’s suffrage movements. The example set by the kosher meat boycotters was later emulated in Jewish neighborhood rent strikers in 1904 and 1907-08, and in food boycotts in 1907, 1912 and 1917. Many of the daughters of the kosher meat boycotters of 1902, especially those in the garment trades, would become the backbone of New York’s labor movement.

I’m not under the impression that this blog is especially well-read in the Orthodox community but I think the AgriProcessor boycott is an important cause to highlight. Even beyond the legitimate and worthy goals of the campaign this movement shows the social justice side of the Jewish tradition that is too often drowned out by the rasher and more self-interested stereotypes.