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Wal-Mart Hammered Again on Sweatshop Conditions

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is sparring with a small laborrights group that says it has documented worker abuse at a garment factory in Bangladesh that helps supply the Bentonville-based retailer's stores.

SweatFree Communities says its report "Sweatshop Solutions: Economic Ground Zero in Bangladesh and Wal-Mart's Responsibility" is based on interviews with more than 90 workers. Those workers, the report states, cite instances of co-workers being kicked or slapped for minor infractions, including one claim that a pregnant woman miscarried after being kicked by a line supervisor.

When Wal-Mart inspects the plant, the report contends, factory managers know ahead of time and workers are coached on what to tell the inspectors.

Wal-Mart said it could not confirm any of the allegations; the company did make an unannounced inspection of the plant in August before the expected release date of the SweatFree report. The company said it offered to work with the labor-rights group in an attempt to verify the allegations and end any potential abuse in exchange for not releasing the report.

SweatFree Communities first contacted Wal-Mart via e-mail June 13 about a report that purported to document worker abuse that dated back several months, the company said.

"It surprised us that Sweat-Free waited nine months to advise us that they conducted interviews which suggested 'a particularly abusive factory' and 'one of the worst in this export industry intensive area,' as quoted in the report," Wal-Mart said in a statement e-mailed by Richard Coyle, senior director for international corporate affairs. Kathryn Ward, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale who has been studying the lives of Bangladeshi women, including many garment workers, since 2000, said she wasn't surprised at the working conditions described in the report.

"What they found is a very common thing in Bangladesh," she said, but added, "Not all the garment factories are what I would call sweatshops." Despite pay levels that are extremely low by the standards of developed nations - the minimum wage is about $ 24 a month - the garment industry jobs are important to the economy of Bangladesh, Ward said. As the largest buyer of garments in the region, she said, Wal-Mart could set a higher standard for pay and working conditions.

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