By  on June 21, 2005

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. defended its use of apparel contractors in Bangladesh Monday after a "Dateline NBC" report on alleged minimum wage and overtime violations in a factory there.

The "Dateline NBC" segment, "Hidden Costs? The Human Faces Behind Store Bargains," aired Friday night and highlighted the difficulty for U.S. companies in monitoring working conditions in foreign factories competing on thin margins.

"Dateline" teamed up with Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee and a U.S. labor activist, who posed as an apparel executive seeking to have denim shirts made in Bangladesh.

Under that nation's labor laws, an apparel employee is allowed to work 10 hours a day on a six-day work week for a total of 60 hours, including two hours of overtime per day.

Posing as an executive for a fictitious company named Hansen Fashions, Kernaghan visited a few apparel factories on the "Dateline NBC" episode, focusing on the Wills Garment Co., which produces apparel for Wal-Mart. He interviewed a sewing operator named Masuma who said she was often forced to work more than 70 hours a week and frequently worked on Fridays, a Muslim holy day that, by law, is supposed to be a day off.

Masuma said she was paid about 17 cents an hour and was often forced to work extra for no pay if she failed to meet her quota of sewing 80 stripes an hour on pants destined for Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart's director of international corporate affairs, Bill Wertz, said in an interview Monday that the company was being "singled out" as part of the NLC's campaign against Wal-Mart, which has come under fire on a range of issues, including employee salaries and benefits.

Wertz said the labor violations depicted on "Dateline NBC'' are common. Wal-Mart goes to great lengths to monitor factories around the world and eradicate labor abuses, he said. "We are continually trying to eliminate these kinds of violations, but, unfortunately, we're unable to succeed 100 percent of the time," he said. Wertz acknowledged Wal-Mart found overtime violations at the Wills plant last year and worked with management to correct them. He said the factory would have received another routine audit in July, but company officials will go back in sooner as a result of the "Dateline NBC'' segment.

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