- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., stung by charges that it knew contract cleaning services used illegal workers, said yesterday it would review all of its 1.1 million U.S. workers and fire any that aren’t legally employed.

The move came a day after federal agents arrested 245 illegal workers in a 21-state sweep of 60 Wal-Mart stores and the company’s headquarters.

Law enforcement officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that they gathered recordings from wiretaps that indicate Wal-Mart executives knew the company’s subcontractors used illegal workers.

Though contract cleaning crews were the focus of the sweep, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said yesterday that about 10 Wal-Mart associates in Arizona and Kentucky were among those arrested.

“These are people who used to be part of the outside cleaning crew, and when we took that in-house, these folks were simply hired on as employees,” Miss Williams said. “They got caught up in the immigration sweep.”

Wal-Mart began moving toward using its own workers to clean floors at its stores about a year ago.

John Shewairy, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, would not reveal the names of companies that contracted with Wal-Mart. Miss Williams, citing privacy issues, said Wal-Mart would not name the companies either.

Mr. Shewairy did say the workers came from 18 nations and included 90 persons from Mexico, 35 from the Czech Republic, 22 from Mongolia and 20 from Brazil. The government initially said it had arrested about 300 people, but Mr. Shewairy said yesterday the number turned out to be lower.

Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the United States, pledged to cooperate with investigators.

The company instructed store managers Thursday to preserve all relevant documents in the event immigration agents want to review them. Agents left with several boxes after searching the office of a midlevel executive at Wal-Mart’s Bentonville headquarters.

Miss Williams said yesterday that Wal-Mart has still not heard from the government that it is a target of an investigation.

“No one at Wal-Mart has been subpoenaed,” she said.

“We are doing a very thorough investigation with our own stores so we understand what happened and make sure that if we need to take proactive, corrective steps, we will do that,” she said. “If we find workers that are undocumented we would terminate them immediately.”

The law enforcement sources said the investigation grew out of earlier probes of Wal-Mart cleaning crew contractors in 1998 and 2001.

Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s largest retailer, uses more than 100 third-party contractors to clean more than 700 stores nationwide, Miss Williams said.

Maria Stephenson, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans, said a company hiring a subcontractor would not likely be held responsible if the subcontractor hired illegal aliens.

She also said a company does not have to verify a prospective worker’s documents.

“You don’t have to call the [Department of Motor Vehicles] and verify that this person actually has a driver’s license,” she said.

Mr. Shewairy said the immigration agency does routine audits of companies throughout the country, checking I-9 forms that each U.S. worker is required to fill out.

“When there is information that companies employ illegal aliens, we initiate our investigations,” Mr. Shewairy said. An employer can face civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants or failing to comply with the I-9 regulations.

Shares in Wal-Mart fell 59 cents to close at $58.11 in trading yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange.

Wal-Mart is not the first big company to be targeted in an immigration investigation. Six managers at Tyson Foods in Springdale, one town away from Wal-Mart in Bentonville, were charged in an immigrant-smuggling case in 2001.

One defendant fatally shot himself a few months after being charged, and two managers entered guilty pleas early in the case. A jury acquitted the poultry company and three other managers.

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