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Rights Group Targets Rapper's Clothing Line

October 29, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Members of a workers-rights organization alleged Tuesday that hip-hop impresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' clothing line is being manufactured in a Honduran sweatshop that fires workers for being pregnant.

"These women don't need to be trapped in misery," Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, said at a news conference in front of the Fifth Avenue clothing store that Combs plans to open this spring.

He accused the Southeast Textiles S.A. factory in Choloma, Honduras, of forcing unpaid overtime on its workers and barring bathroom visits without permission. He appeared with Lydda Eli Gonzalez, 19, who said she had been fired from her job at the factory after 13 months and had endured abusive working conditions.

The factory's owner, Steve Hawkins, told Associated Press that the claims of substandard conditions were "completely groundless."

Jeff Tweedy, executive vice president of Sean John, the clothing company owned by Combs, said in a statement that the company was "shocked" at the group's allegations and had no knowledge of any wrongdoing.

Tweedy said that extensive compliance checks are conducted at all facilities supplying Sean John to ensure they are clean and safe. "We will not tolerate any violation of labor laws at facilities in which our merchandise is manufactured," he said.

He pledged that an investigation would be launched, and if any proof of wrongdoing is found, Combs' company would immediately terminate its relationship with the factory.

In a report, the National Labor Committee said corporate audits of the factory were "a sham," and to a large extent were "staged events" designed to make a good impression.

Kernaghan said his group did not want Combs to cease ties with the factory, but rather to demand better working conditions there. "These women need these jobs," he said. "And they are willing to work very hard but they want to be treated like human beings.

"This is not an attack upon Mr. Combs," Kernaghan said. "I believe he doesn't understand or doesn't know the conditions around the world in the factories which are producing his goods. This is an appeal to Mr. Combs to do the right thing."

At the sidewalk news conference, Gonzalez said that workers were not paid overtime and that supervisors would "stand over us shouting and cursing at us to go faster.... They call us filthy names."

She said the factory was hot and dusty. "You breathe it in, and you go into the factory with black hair, and you come out with hair that is white or red or whatever the color of the shirts you are working on," Gonzalez added.

Gonzalez alleged that employees were forbidden to talk while working on garments, and that all new workers were required to take a pregnancy test.

"If it comes out positive, they are fired," she said.

Hawkins, a native of North Carolina, said Gonzalez was a disgruntled worker fired for producing poor quality merchandise, not clocking in when she arrived and repeatedly showing up late.

When Gonzalez was fired, she received a severance check equivalent to 2 1/2-months' salary, Hawkins told Associated Press. While the minimum wage in Honduras is 55 cents an hour, he said his workers are paid an average of 90 cents an hour.

Kernaghan, who exposed labor violations at plants that produced garments for Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line eight years ago, said that his efforts to contact Combs to request a meeting had been unsuccessful.

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