Groups Urge Wal-Mart, Labor Department to Rescind Compliance Agreement

The Child Labor Coalition and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union are trying to turn up the heat on Wal-Mart after the recent announcement that the Department of Labor struck a deal with the retailer requiring the federal agency to provide it with 15 days' notice before further inspections.

A joint statement from the coalition and the union chastised Wal-Mart for its treatment of underage workers and implored the retailer and the Department of Labor to rescind the "sweetheart deal" struck by the agency and Wal-Mart to punish Wal-Mart for alleged child labor violations. The coalition and the union unveiled an e-mail campaign directed at Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott and U.S. Secretary of labor Elaine Chao.

The two groups assert that the "unprecedented" 15-days' notice provision "clearly undermines compliance and allows managers simply to re-assign underage workers before an inspection."

"Hundreds of children are maimed and crippled in accidents -- some losing arms and legs -- every year involving balers and compactors commonly used in Wal-Mart and other retail stores to handle the disposal of boxes and similar materials," the two groups said in a statement.

The groups contend that distinctive employee badges for underage workers, in addition to unannounced inspections, would stop "illegal child labor" in Wal-Mart stores.

Through the use of distinctive badges, "Both managers and young workers would always be aware that certain assignments are illegal," the groups contend. "Compliance would require unannounced inspections to make sure that badges are properly issued, and that no manager is pressuring minors into illegal assignments."

Wal-Mart, which is the world's largest retailer, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by allowing 16- and 17-year-old employees in Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire stores to operate heavy machinery such as scrap paper balers and fork lifts, according to the Department of Labor.

The federal agency has come under fire for the way it meted out punishment, which included a $135,540 fine and a compliance agreement that required the department's Wage and Hour Division to provide 15 days' notice to the retailer prior to any further inspections. Under the terms of the agreement, Wal-Mart is not required to admit any wrongdoing, and the retailer has denied the Department of Labor's allegations. The Department of Labor's inspector general is investigating the agreement.

The coalition and the union said the Department of Labor "has shamefully abdicated its responsibility by acquiescing in Wal-Mart's continuing violation of child labor laws and other worker protections."

Connecticut attorney general asks parents to come forward

In the wake of the announcement of Wal-Mart's alleged child labor violations, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called upon parents of teenage Wal-Mart employees to come forward with any information regarding improper treatment of underage workers by the retailer. "You are our eyes and ears in enforcing state child labor laws," Blumenthal said in a statement.

Blumenthal called the inspector general's investigation "a good first step."

"It is obviously a response to public pressure," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal also said his office "will continue to actively and aggressively" investigate Wal-Mart's "apparent pattern and practice of child labor law violations" in Connecticut "and why the federal government agreed to a sweetheart deal years after the violations occurred."

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