Ready or not, here they come. Child-labor law enforcers from the U.S. Department of Labor are no longer going to give Wal-Mart 15 days advance notice of any store inspections — a move that was roundly criticized as making the inspection process a joke. The deal also gave Wal-Mart a “grace period” to come into compliance with the law, and limited how much DOL could tell the public about their inspections. The deal looked like it was written to protect Wal-Mart more than to protect children. Any child labor violations by Wal-Mart could be “corrected” with such lengthy advance notice, making the DOL inspections a waste of taxpayer’s dollars, and a slow pitch for the retailer. The agreement with Wal-Mart, which was called a ‘sweetheart deal’ at the time, was part of a settlement DOL reached with the company last January. That deal expired on January 6, 2006. Wal-Mart has repeatedly been fined by state and federal officials for violating child labor laws, including violations for working teenagers too many hours, and having them operate dangerous equipment. It was one year ago that the retailer was fined $135,540 for 24 child-labor violations involving 85 teenage workers who used hazardous equipment at stores in Arkansas, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Wal-Mart responded to news of the end of this deal by saying, “At Wal-Mart, we are absolutely committed to full compliance with child-labor laws and will continue to work closely with the Department of Labor.” Yes, critics said, too closely. U.S. Congressman George Miller (D-CA) an outspoken critic of the DOL deal, told the Arkansas News Bureau, “Because of the public scrutiny and controversy surrounding this agreement, the Bush administration had no choice but to let it expire last week.” Miller pushed the DOL to investigate how the special arrangements came about, and that report concluded that “significant concessions to Wal-Mart” had been made.
The “close” work between DOL and Wal-Mart created the appearance that federal regulators were more interested in preventing embarrassment for the corporation than eager to end violations of child-labor laws. Wal-Mart always says it is fully complying with the law, until another story comes out showing that they are not. Then the company distances itself from the violations, suggesting that it is just a few bad managers who caused all the problems. After a year of sweet deals from DOL, Wal-Mart now goes back to the normal inspection procedure, and we shall see how long it takes for the next child-labor laws to be bent.