George Orwell would not be surprised. As he predicted in his novel 1984, Orwell’s Big Brother, surveillance, is working overtime these days. Not only is the government watching you, as Edward Snowden revealed, but now business is getting in on the act. Major retail and restaurant chains, seeking to fine tune their staffing and hold down labor costs, are using sophisticated software that tracks employees’ performance and sales activity. The software is integral to just-in-time scheduling systems, which help ensure that a store won’t have eight cashiers working when there’s only enough business for four.
But for workers these systems are a catastrophe. It means irregular shifts, significant schedule changes on short notice and huge variations in hours from week to week. It plays havoc with family life and the ability of unskilled workers to further their education. The New York Times profiled a part- time Starbucks barista, a single mom who couldn’t arrange child care or take classes because her hours fluctuated so wildly. Welcome to the digital sweat shop.
In stark contrast are the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman (or countrywoman) or a stranger in one of the communities of your land (Deut. 24:14). The first code of Jewish law, the Mishnah makes it explicit:”If a man hired laborers and bade them to work early or to work late, he has no right to compel them to do so where the custom is not to work early or not to work late” (Mishnah Bava Metzia 7:1).