Bava Metzia 76

Variable wages.

The mishnah that starts the sixth chapter of Bava Metzia begins by declaring that artisans who deceive one another “have nothing but grievance against each other” — that is, they have no concrete financial claim. The Gemara quickly establishes that this must be a case where an employer enlisted a middleman to hire laborers, and the middleman deceived the laborers. But what was the deception?

The Gemara suggests and then quickly dismisses the two most likely options:

If the employer said to him: “(Hire for me laborers at) four dinars,” and he went and told them for three dinars, what is the relevance of this grievance? They knew and accepted (the conditions). 

If the employer said to him: “(Hire laborers for) three dinars,” and he went and told them for four, what are the circumstances? If he told them: “The monetary value is incumbent upon me,” let him give them (the difference) from his own pocket.

In the first scenario, the middleman hired the laborers for less than the employer offered. Where then is the cause for grievance? After all, the laborers agreed to the middleman’s terms. In the second scenario, however, he offers them more than the employer would pay and they agree. In that case, the laborers have more than just a grievance against the middleman — they have a legitimate claim on the wages they were promised. 

The Gemara responds that the mishnah must therefore be referring to a situation where the middleman stated from the get-go that the obligation to pay the wages rests solely with the employer. Therefore, even if he promised them more than the employer is willing to pay, the middleman bears no financial responsibility for the difference. 

At this point, one may feel a bit disgruntled on the laborers’ behalf. If such an arrangement is possible, what is to discourage such deceptions on the part of a contractor? Workers could regularly end up being paid less than they agreed to with no recourse. But the Gemara pushes back:

But let us see how much laborers are hired for! 

Even if the employer had told the middleman she only wished to pay three dinars, if the typical pay for that job is four dinars, the employer should be obligated to pay the full four. There is a responsibility on the part of an employer to pay the normative rate for a particular job. The fact that they hadn’t initially wanted to pay as much is of no significance.

The Gemara resolves its own challenge:

No, it is necessary where there are those who hire for four and others who hire for three. (The reason for their grievance is) that the laborers can say: “Had you not told us for four, we would have made an effort and hired ourselves out for four.”

In a locale where the customary payment varies, the employer has the right to pay the lower normative amount. Therefore, the laborers have no formal recourse for the additional dinar they were promised. Nonetheless, the Gemara still finds such deceptive practices problematic, even if there isn’t a formal legal ban. Just because three dinars isn’t outside the realm of normal wages, the workers still have a genuine cause for grievance, as they could have found higher-paying work.

The Gemara continues to equivocate about the possible situation we’re discussing, adding in factors such as whether the laborers are themselves also homeowners (who wouldn’t work for a lower wage), what quality of work was performed (legitimating the practice of putting in more effort for better compensation), and whether the quality of the work is measurable.

But in the end, the Gemara circles back to its first suggestion: Perhaps we are indeed dealing with an employer who promised four dinars and a contractor who hired for three. Just because the laborers accepted these terms doesn’t mean they have no grievance against the contractor when they learn they could have been paid higher wages. This suggestion pushes back on the common notion that any labor that is agreed to by both parties is inherently legitimate and non-exploitative. Just because people are willing to work for less when they need the money doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to the option of a fair wage.

Read all of Bava Metzia 76 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 14th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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