- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Labor Department investigators will review a $135,540 settlement the agency reached with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s biggest retailer, over accusations that it violated child-labor laws.

The investigation was sought by Rep. George Miller. The California Democrat criticized the deal made public Feb. 12 because it provides that Wal-Mart will receive 15 days notice in most cases before the Labor Department investigates employee complaints of wage and hour violations.

Mr. Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the two-week window could give Wal-Mart the chance to sweep violations under the rug.

“We plan to review the circumstances surrounding this agreement,” Labor Department Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell wrote in a letter to Mr. Miller. The congressman’s office released the letter yesterday.



The letter didn’t offer details on the scope or timing of the review. David Pine, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said the investigation was already under way but declined further comment.

Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the Bentonville, Ark., company welcomed the review.

“We’re confident the inspector general will conclude the agreement is fair and reasonable and is the result of arm’s length negotiations,” Mr. Whitcomb said. “What is truly unfortunate is that the attention focused on this agreement has now moved from being about compliance, which is where our attention is focused, to being a new forum for people who simply don’t like us.”

The 24 purported violations, which critics said occurred at stores in Arkansas, Connecticut and New Hampshire between 1998 and 2002, had to do with teenage workers who used hazardous equipment such as paper balers and forklifts.

One case in New Hampshire involved a youth who reportedly was using a chain saw to trim Christmas trees. A majority of the cases in Connecticut involved allegations of children loading paper balers.

Child-labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from operating hazardous equipment.

Wal-Mart denied the allegations but agreed to pay the penalty.

“For the good of Wal-Mart workers, I am pleased that the inspector general has agreed to look into this questionable arrangement,” Mr. Miller said. “It is unacceptable that the Department of Labor would choose to bestow special privileges on Wal-Mart, one of the nation’s most notorious violators of labor laws and minimum labor standards.”

Mr. Miller also complained that the Labor Department kept the settlement secret for a month, and he said it was too small ” amounting to 15 seconds worth of Wal-Mart sales in 2004.

The Labor Department has said it wanted to wait until the settlement was paid to make it public.

Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retail company as measured by sales. At all its stores, Wal-Mart sales reached $284.8 billion for the year ending Jan. 28.

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