One of the main laws in Halacha governing the relationship between employees and employers is the ironclad requirement to pay employees for their labor and services in a timely and fair fashion. The Torah makes this into both a positive commandment and a negative prohibition. "On that very day [of his labor] shall you pay him his wages." "Do not allow the wages of your employee to rest overnight with you."
The import of the Torah is abundantly clear. The employer is not allowed to finance his monetary shortfall on the backs of his employees. Engaging someone to be your employee, whether that person serves as a day laborer, a cleaner in one's home, a CEO of a major corporation or a governmental functionary, places the responsibility for payment of that person's wages in a timely fashion squarely on the employer. It is an obligation that he cannot shirk.
There may very well be extenuating circumstances that limit the employer's ability to discharge that responsibility. We may even sympathize with the employer's plight. But these are only mitigating factors in our judgment of the employer. In no way do they excuse his failure to live up to his responsibilities to pay those who work for him in a timely and decent manner.
Judaism is an exacting taskmaster when it comes to the rights of employers and employees vis-a-vis each other. The employee is expected to be diligent in the performance of his assigned tasks. The employer is expected to pay on time and provide humane and reasonable working conditions.
The Talmud also points out that if the employer is a Jew (or perhaps even a "democratic Jewish state"), there is an element of hilul Hashem - desecrating God's name - present in not paying employees in a timely fashion if such dereliction is widely known and perceived. I remember that when I headed a yeshiva for a number of decades, I was always faced with the problem of the monthly shortfall of cash to pay the teachers. I therefore entered into an arrangement with a number of them that I would commit myself to their receiving their full wages on a twice-a-year basis, though I would endeavor to pay them regularly on a monthly basis if I could.
Though this arrangement was legally and halachically valid, I always had great pangs of guilt within me when there were certain months when the yeshiva simply did not have the funds to pay them. Because of this responsibility, the yeshiva financed its periodic deficits through loans from banks and individuals, advance tuition payments and other sources rather than have the teachers alone carry the burden of the cash shortfall. Yet in spite of all good efforts there were months when the payroll was not met in a timely fashion.
I felt and still feel that there was no legitimate excuse for failing in that responsibility, even though the teachers had agreed to its likelihood of happening prior to their employment. The conscience of the Torah's moral law, over and above its legal strictures, haunts us all.
The coming of the mass production factory in the late 1800s and early 1900s produced terrible conditions for the workers in those factories. Unhealthy physical environments, dangerous machinery, sound and air pollution, long working hours and niggardly wages all combined to create seething resentment against their employers. Many of the owners of these factories were Jews and many of them professed to be observant Jews. But their Torah observance did not extend to conditions on the factory floor. This was especially true in Jewish Eastern Europe and in the garment trades in New York's immigrant Jewish society.
This worker resentment drove hundreds of thousands of Jews into adopting the ideas and worldview of Marxism, with its concurrent abandonment of Jewish observance and tradition, as a cure-all for the ills of the laborers. Unfortunately the "dictatorship of the proletariat" proved itself to be just as harsh and cruel as all other forms of dictatorship. Its negative effects are felt until today throughout the Jewish world.
Through legislation, labor unions, enlightened employers and a sense of the individual responsibility that the Torah's moral standard of employer-employee relationships demands from us, the situation of the laborer has vastly improved. But one constant remains: The worker is to be paid in a timely fashion as per the agreement entered into with his employer. The Torah's standards for correct and fair human behavior and interpersonal relationships have never wavered or changed.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).