Officials challenge Wal-Mart on child labor

HARTFORD, Conn. — Anger was evident at the state Capitol here recently over revelations of a secret deal between Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to cover up child labor law violations. The charges include requiring teenage workers to use heavy equipment, including chain saws and forklifts.

State officials are launching a national effort to confront the notorious union-busting company over reports of the 24 child labor violations, 20 of which involved Connecticut stores.

Railing against a “sweetheart deal” on the four-year-old violations that requires Wal-Mart to pay a mere $135,540 in penalties in exchange for a guaranteed 15-day prior notification of inspections, state Rep. Walter Pawelkiewicz, a member of the Legislature’s labor committee, declared, “Connecticut won’t be part of this love affair!”

The Feb. 18 press conference included more than a dozen legislators, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and union leaders.

“The problems are bigger than Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire,” Blumenthal said in announcing that he is in contact with attorneys general across the country. As a result of a request by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the DOL is now investigating its own activities.

Blumenthal welcomed the probe but stressed that the DOL should not use that as an excuse “for stonewalling states like Connecticut who want to know who the children were, how many and what they were doing. It took four years to reach a settlement and there are still no details.”

In the effort to “break through the veil of secrecy,” Blumenthal said he is working to involve other attorneys general to hold both Wal-Mart and federal authorities accountable. Noting that errors or improprieties would warrant overturning the settlement, he said, “Wal-Mart had a $3.2 billion profit last quarter. Compare the $135,000 fine to that.”

Blumenthal said in the past, companies would have paid millions of dollars for advance notice of inspections. “Apart from violating law, Wal-Mart has a net plus from this. The fact that this administration recognizes the settlement is much beyond the pale is a good step in the right direction, but it does not justify stonewalling.”

Rep. Kevin Ryan, co-chair of the state Labor Committee, indicated that Connecticut could impose increased fines or expand the investigation to all aspects of labor law, not just child labor.

“Not only child laws, but workers’ human rights are being violated,” Labor Committee Co-Chair Sen. Edith Prague said. “Wal-Mart is notorious for their exploitation of people, paying minimum wage and few, if any, benefits.”

She announced a new bill in the labor committee to protect workers’ jobs if they speak out. The firing of one Wal-Mart worker, allegedly for talking about organizing a union, sparked the bill.

“There is a war on workers here and in Canada,” said Brian Petronella, international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and president of Local 371 in Connecticut. When workers in a meat department in a Texas Wal-Mart voted to join the UFCW, Wal-Mart simply closed down 180 meat departments across the country. In Canada last week, Petronella said, Wal-Mart closed an entire store after employees won an election for union representation.

In a related development, legislators are also outraged that 11.3 percent of the 9,082 Wal-Mart workers in Connecticut are being subsidized by the HUSKY health insurance program at a cost to the state’s taxpayers of $5 million.

“Here is the richest retail company in the world, and we, the taxpayers, are subsidizing their coverage,” said House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan.

In response, a health security bill was introduced March 7 that would require employers of 100 or more to provide health benefits or pay into a government fund to do it for them.

joelle.fishman@pobox.com