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."The ultimate sanction is to withdraw our business," Wertz said. "If a factory does not improve over a period of time, depending on the nature of the violations, we will discontinue doing business there." He said Wal-Mart negotiates prices fairly — responding to an accusation on the program that the world's largest retailer would not pay a penny more for an item, as requested by a factory owner — and said the comment lacked credibility.

"We negotiate prices with suppliers and we're tough," Wertz said. "I don't apologize for that."

The program showed Kernaghan looking at several factories, including one that produced apparel for Sears, Roebuck & Co., Wal-Mart and Kohl's. Kernaghan took a hidden camera into a third apparel factory producing clothes for Kmart and Wal-Mart at 1 a.m. The workers said they were racing to meet a deadline and had been on the job since 8 the previous morning.

Fakrul Ahsan, commercial counselor at the Embassy of Bangladesh in Washington, said the report was "balanced," and stressed that his government takes steps to reduce and eliminate labor law abuses. "We have an open mind and any shortcomings will be discussed and resolved," Ahsan said.

Bangladesh has made strides to virtually eliminate child labor, progress acknowledged by human rights groups, he said. The country has about 2 million workers, primarily women, in 4,000 factories, Ahsan said. In 2004, Bangladesh exported $1.97 billion worth of apparel to the U.S., U.S. Commerce Department figures show.

Masuma was paid about $50 a month.

"In the U.S., $50 a month may not sound good, but in Bangladesh, it is fine," Ahsan said. "We know there are problems, but we are trying to improve them, and these girls are getting a salary to live on. Otherwise, they would go begging."

Images of workers like Masuma, pictured in her squalid living quarters with her two-year-old daughter, mother and two other garment workers, prompt many in the U.S. to question whether globalization raises the standard of living.

"Dateline NBC" aired the segment for two Wal-Mart customers who said on the program it looked like "slave labor." The shoppers — Vilma Matera and Peggy Rocciola — said they would pay 20 cents to 50 cents extra for a pair of pants if they knew it would help workers like Masuma.Kernaghan's organization brought Masuma to the U.S. as part of a campaign to improve working conditions and took her to a Wal-Mart store in Connecticut, where she found clothes she had made in Bangladesh retailing for $12.84, the equivalent of about one week's pay for her.

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