When Thomas Carlyle proposed "A fair day's wages for a fair day's work", it is unlikely he had Jacob and Laban's employment relationship in mind. Wages are a sore point in this week's parashah; initially, Laban appears very generous and asks Jacob "Tell me, what should your wages be?" Laban uses the word maskoret - the same word used for wages in Israel today. Jacob pauses.
His bargaining power is strong, but he doesn't rush to name his price. Instead the text pauses, perhaps giving him time to think strategy, but more likely to let the reader discover that Rachel has an older - and what a surprise - less attractive sister. "I will serve you for seven years for Rachel," declares Jacob. The word "wage" is not used in his reply, but the connotation is stark. Rachel is for sale and Jacob has struck a deal – but as we know, he is duped on his wedding night and must work another seven years for her. Hardly a fair day's wage.
After years of toil, Jacob says to Rachel and Leah, "I have served your father with all my strength, but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again." Jacob breaks his silence; he has been continually undermined and needs to tell his wives that he cannot trust their father any longer.
In Jewish law, whoever does not pay his worker fairly and promptly commits several crimes: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute labourer" (Deuteronomy 24:14), "You must pay him his wages on the same day" (Deuteronomy 24:15). In our times, the most vulnerable employees are those in our homes, the au pairs, the cleaners, the foreign workers who have left their families to care for our elderly. Let none of us be accused of behaving like Laban.