By  on February 15, 2005

WASHINGTON — Organized labor groups were among those criticizing a settlement between Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Labor involving child-labor violations at stores in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Arkansas.

The accord fined the retailer $135,540 and contained a provision giving Wal-Mart 15 days notice before the labor department investigates any accusation, including child labor, minimum wage and overtime violations.

“It’s terrible they got the 15-day warning,” said Bruce Raynor, president of the UNITE HERE union. “That means before they get investigated they will be allowed to clean it up.”

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has been attacked by critics who, among other things, charge that the company depresses wages and provides inadequate employee benefits. It is also the target of a class-action gender discrimination case and a scandal involving a subcontractor accused of using illegal immigrants on cleaning crews. The retailer has embarked on a public relations campaign to refute the allegations.

“What we agreed to was to take a number of steps,” said a spokesman for Wal-Mart. “We didn’t admit any wrongdoing, but we did agree to strengthen our training and compliance programs to make sure we don’t have any violations that come up again.”

Robert Reich, who was secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, said the penalty was small “given the extent of the violations” and characterized the 15-day notification provision as “odd.”

“Wal-Mart employs more people than the entire auto industry in the U.S.,” Reich said. “We’re not talking about the company down the street. Wal-Mart sets the standard and every other retailer in American competes directly or indirectly against Wal-Mart.’’

Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Education & Workforce Committee, called for the Labor Department’s Inspector General to investigate what he called a “sweetheart deal” between the Bush administration and “one of the nation’s most frequent violators of labor laws.”

Miller alleged that the agreement gives preferential treatment to a major Republican donor and said the 15-day warning could allow Wal-Mart to “cover up evidence of a violation.”

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