Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mashgichim's "Bill of rights"

Rabbis Mull ‘Bill of Rights’ For Kashrut Inspectors-by Adam Dickter-Assistant Managing Editor

As the kosher food industry in America continues to grow, rabbis who organize supervision in their local communities are considering a measure to protect employees’ rights.

At a conference next week in Dallas, representatives of Orthodox regional rabbinical councils, known as vaadim, will discuss adoption of what some have termed a bill of rights for kosher certifiers, or mashgichim, that was proposed at last year’s conference.

“This is the first time there has been an opportunity for various agencies to sit under one roof and talk about this,” said Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations, which convenes the annual vaadim conference. “The problems aren’t new, but the opportunity to solve them is.”

Prompted by complaints that the quality of supervision is affected when representatives of small certifying agencies are at the mercy of restaurant owners and other businesspeople, the recommendations include ensuring minimum pay, benefits, a safe work environment and preventing mashgichim from being assigned menial tasks.

But most of all the boards want to address the potential conflict of interest that arises when a mashgiach has to fear for his job (Orthodox mashgichim are overwhelmingly male) either because an owner or manager will demand his removal or because the establishment might close as a result of the disclosure.

Two of the provisions to be discussed address the conflict issue. One suggests that a mashgiach who uncovers a violation that results in an establishment’s closure be given preference when a new position becomes available. The other suggests that a mashgiach be free to complain directly to his supervisor and that he be protected from retaliations.

The specter of such a conflict was raised last month when a mashgiach was fired from Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, alleging that it was in retaliation for his complaints about kashrut conditions. But in that case the Orthodox Union, which was responsible for kashrut there, said the complaints were unfounded, and the agency did not object to his dismissal.

The AKO resolutions would not be binding but would for the first time set a uniform standard of workplace conditions for supervision at small businesses, a field that has long been subject to informal arrangements.

More than 70 representatives from councils across the country are expected at the conference. Founded in 1985 but revitalized in recent years, the AKO also holds an event for nationwide kosher supervision agencies timed to coincide with the Kosherfest trade show, which takes place in October at the Meadowlands Exhibition Center in New Jersey.

Rabbi Reuven Stein of the Atlanta Kashrus Commission, who drafted and presented the working conditions recommendations last year and chairs an AKO committee on mashgichim, said that complaints generally come from employees of vaads and other small agencies because supervisors at larger companies, who are placed in factories or larger catering facilities, are generally subject to the protections of corporate policies in place there, or better protected by their agencies.

“There were some issues where mashgichim felt they were not working in safe conditions or were being treated by management more like line workers, a dishwasher or someone else in the kitchen,” said Rabbi Stein. “I generally found that those who work for the larger organizations are usually protected by those organizations.”

While many small kosher establishments have supervision that entails only spot checks by a mashgiach, others, particularly those owned by non-Jews or non-Sabbath observant Jews, have full-time certifiers on the premises, which entails long hours. Some business owners expect mashgichim, who are being paid by the business, to do work other than inspection while they are on the premises.

And when violations are found they can lead to tension between the mashgiach and owner or manager.
Large agencies, such as the industry leader, the Orthodox Union, require that an owner or manager consult with the OU before dismissing any mashgiach. But smaller groups like vaads often don’t have that kind of leverage.

At the same time, concern for how kashrut is enforced and the ability of certifiers to ensure integrity has also increased. The current issue of Kashrus Magazine, an independent publication based in Brooklyn, features a roundtable with representatives of kosher certifying agencies sharing ideas and insights, titled “Keeping Mashgichim Happy.”

Rabbi Chaim Fogelman of OK Kosher Certification notes in the discussion that his agency requires business owners to place two weeks’ pay for a mashgiach in escrow to increase his comfort level. “If the mashgiach has an issue or finds something wrong, he will not hesitate to say something to the OK because he knows he will still get paid,” writes Rabbi Fogelman.

Rabbi Yosef Wikler, publisher of Kashrus, noted in an interview that it was clear that vaad rabbis and the AKO are listening to feedback from their certifiers.

“They are taking the matter seriously and hopefully helping [mashgichim] grow professionally, not just in providing seminars for them but also in how they are treated by the companies they work for.”

Rabbi Stein of Atlanta said he wasn’t sure how his committee would vote on the proposals.
“The document could change, things could be added to it,” he said.

Another committee at the conference is to deal with recent changes in the production of alcoholic beverages and their impact on the kashrut of beer and whiskey.

Beer has become a big problem,” said Rabbi Fishbane, noting that when Anheuser-Busch started making a non-kosher, clam-flavored brew, kashrut inspectors asked to tour the bottling facility to see if the change involved equipment used for other varieties. Kashrus Magazine recently advised against using Budweiser products until the company receives kosher certification or inspection from a kashrut expert.

Some beers and whiskeys, too, have become problematic because they are distilled in the same casks used for unkosher wine, said Rabbi Fishbane.

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