Saturday, February 19, 2005

What's It All About, Vicky? Child Labor, Wal-Mart and the Bush Administration

"Why would we want to change it?"

Assistant Secretary of Labor Victoria Lipnic, when asked whether the Department of Labor is considering modifying an agreement reached with Wal-Mart in January that requires DOL inspectors to provide 15-day advance notice of any child labor inspections.
Why change it? Take a look at some of the youth fatality investigation reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Like this one:
A 16-year-old male produce-market worker (the victim) died from crushing injuries after being caught in the vertical downstroke baling machine that he was operating. The victim, working alone in the basement of a small produce market, was crushing cardboard boxes when at some point in the compacting process he was caught by the machine's hydraulic ram. The victim was discovered by an exterminator spraying the basement, who notified the store manager to call police and emergency medical services (EMS).
Or this:

October 21, 2001, a 15-year-old male pizzeria worker was killed when he became entangled in a machine used to mix pizza dough. The victim had arrived in the United States from Guatemala one month before the incident and had been working at the family-owned pizza restaurant for two weeks. He was paid to do odd jobs at the restaurant, mostly sweeping and cleaning. On the night of the incident, he was cleaning the pizza dough mixer as the restaurant was closing for the evening. He was working alone in the kitchen as the remaining staff cleaned the adjoining dining room. He apparently lifted the cover of the mixer, uncovering the 32-inch-diameter mixing bowl, and started the machine. As he reached in to the bowl to clean it, he became entangled on a large mixing fork (beater) that rotated inside the mixing bowl. His co-workers heard him scream, but were unable to reach him in time.
Or this:

On July 2, 2001, a 17-year-old male warehouse laborer (the victim) was fatally injured when the sit-down-type forklift he was operating tipped over and crushed him. The victim apparently lost control of the forklift, which had a load on its forks and the mast fully extended, as he was making a right turn, causing the forklift to tip over 90 degrees onto its left side. The unrestrained victim was crushed under the extended boom/mast of the forklift.
Responding to pressure from congressional Democrats like George Miler (CA) and Ted Kennedy (MA) as well as labor unions, the Labor Department's Inspector General announced yesterday that it would conduct an investigation "to review the circumstances surrounding" an agreement between DOL and Wal-Mart that required Labor Department inspectors to warn Wal-Mart stores before inspecting them for child labor and other labor standards violations.

Wal-Mart thinks it's just about them. According to Wal-Mart spokesperson Gus Whitcomb,

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.
No Gus, "truly unfortunate" is the fact that over 200,000 teens are injured on the job each year in this country. Of those injured on the job, about 100,000 are injured seriously enough to require emergency room treatment. The controversy about this issue goes far beyond the big bad Congressmen and unions beating up on itty bitty Wal-Mart. It's about how serious this administration is going to be about enforcing violations of child labor laws, as well as general labor standards and workplace health and safety protections -- especially when those violators happen to also be their major corporate contributors.

Other Developments

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, where most of the violations took place, the Governor M. Jodi Rell ordered a state investigation of the Wal-Mart's Connecticut stores and "several state representatives called for increases in state fines for labor-law violations and for a budget increase to support the probe with more inspectors."

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was pleased:

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who said that findings of "errors or improprieties of substantive magnitude would warrant overturning the agreement,"including any false statements or improper political intervention. Blumenthal filed his second Freedom of Information Act request Friday, this time for documents on all closed investigations of possible child labor law violations by Wal-Mart across the country. He said his request was a result of discussions with attorneys general in other states who have heard that previous investigations of Wal-Mart's compliance with child labor provisions had been closed before being fully aired.

Gary Pechie, who heads Connecticut's wage and workplace standards division, reported that the state would be reviewing that Wal-Mart violations and they would not be giving the stores advance notice.

Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Child Labor Coalition called on Wal-Mart to stop illegal child labor in its stores by making underage workers wear distinctive badges that could readily identify them as being prohibited from hazardous assignments.

For more information on safe employment for young workers, check out these websites:

NIOSH Young Worker Safety and Health: Lot's of publications, fatality reports, fact sheets and other resources.

Young Worker Health and Safety: The website is a project of California's statewide Resource Network for Young Worker Health and Safety.

The Child Labor Coalition: Information for teen workers as well as advocacy information about U.S. and international child/youth labor.

Interstate Labor Standards Association (ILSA): Includes information on state agencies that administer and enforce child labor laws.

Related Stories

Wal-Mart -- DOL Deal: Clinton Did It Too? Not!, February 16, 2005
More Wal-Mart/DOL Shenanigans, February 15, 2005
Miller Calls For Investigation of Wal-Mart Deal February 15, 2005
Bush Labor Department Puts Wal-Mart in "Privileged Position" February 12, 2005
Wal-Mart: Following In The Proud Footsteps of the Tobacco, Beer and Petroleum Industries February 11, 2005
Wal-Mart Enters 19th Century: Locks Workers In Overnight January 18, 2004