Wal-Mart Accused of Denying Workers' Rights

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

An American labor rights group filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., alleging that suppliers in five countries violated workers' rights, including denying a minimum wage, requiring overtime and punishing union activity.

The suit, filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, accuses Wal-Mart of failing to enforce its standards for suppliers and, in some cases, observe local labor laws in China, Bangladesh, Swaziland, Nicaragua and Indonesia.

The International Labor Rights Fund, a District-based advocacy group, filed the suit on behalf of 15 foreign workers who claimed they were subjected to illegal working conditions, and four California grocery employees who claimed that Wal-Mart's cost-cutting measures resulted in lower wages and benefits.

The suit, which must be certified by a judge before achieving class-action status, is the latest legal salvo against the discount retailer, which faces class-action suits claiming that it discriminated against black truck drivers and female store employees. If certified, the suit could represent 200,000 to 400,000 people, said lawyer Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Fund.

Beth Keck, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart's international division, called the case "complex" and said "it's too early for us to talk about this in detail."

Collingsworth said the suit would test whether corporate codes of conduct, which retailers such as Wal-Mart require their foreign suppliers to sign, "are simply public relations devices or whether they mean what they say."

The suit could take years to move through the courts, but in the meantime, the case is expected to add to the growing debate about Wal-Mart's business model, which has shifted the manufacturing of products including clothing and toys to foreign countries to cut labor costs. Wal-Mart is based in Bentonville, Ark.

According to one assertion in the suit, a woman at a Wal-Mart clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh worked seven days a week, from 7:45 a.m. to 10 p.m., making chalk marks on pants and did not have a day off for six months.

The four California plaintiffs are employees of unionized grocery chains, such as Ralphs and Safeway Inc., that have cut wages and benefits to better compete with Wal-Mart. All four are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which is trying to organize Wal-Mart's 1.2 million U.S. employees.

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