P. Diddy Feels the Heat Over Sweatshop Charge

Washington Post |  By Michelle Garcia and Michael Powell | October, 29 2003 |  Share  | Source Article

NEW YORK, Oct. 28 -- Hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs built his fortune with swagger and business savvy. But Tuesday he walked into the Hilton Hotel to answer accusations that his latest venture, the clothing line known as Sean John, relied on Honduran women paid pennies to stitch T-shirts that retail for $40 in SoHo boutiques.

The impeccably attired Combs -- wearing a bone-colored suit and open-neck white shirt -- says he first heard of the charges while walking the red carpet at the Radio Music Awards in Las Vegas on Monday evening. He hopped a jet to New York and insisted that he would investigate the allegations thoroughly.

"I grew up in a family of working people," Combs, 33, told a ravening crowd of paparazzi and reporters. "I know what it's like to struggle day after day in a job to put food on the table.

"I want to make sure that any merchandise that has my name on it is made by workers who are treated well."

P. Diddy (the entrepreneur formerly known as Puff Daddy) cuts an outsize figure on this city's social scene, dating J. Lo for a time, hiring bodyguards with pumped pectorals and taking helicopters to the Hamptons. Just recently he announced plans to run in the New York City Marathon, to raise money for the city's public schools.

When he created a garment line with the slogan "It's not just a label, it's a lifestyle,"19-year-old Lydda Eli Gonzales may not have been what he had in mind.

But there she was Tuesday, a small-boned Honduran woman standing in front of the Fifth Avenue building that will house Sean John next spring, accusing the owners of the factory where she worked of imposing mandatory unpaid overtime, instituting pregnancy tests for new employees and serving the women water that contained fecal matter.

"We are totally slaves," said Gonzales, who worked in the factory in Choloma for 13 months. "We live inhumane lives."

She is among the women who stitch the oversize shirts in the hip-hop style favored by young men around the world. They are made by Southeast Textiles, known as Setisa, which employs 380 workers. Company officials have denied the allegations. In an interview with the Associated Press, Setisa factory owner Steve Hawkins characterized Gonzales as a disgruntled, often tardy factory worker, and the labor complaints as a union-sponsored publicity campaign.

Activists say Honduran workers receive 15 cents for the production of each Sean John long-sleeve shirt, which retails for about $40. "It was a surprise to see how expensive it was when we receive so little to make it," said Gonzales.

Activists said workers receive $33.15 to $50.18 for a 51-hour workweek, or 65 to 98 cents an hour, higher than Honduras's prevailing minimum wage of 55 cents an hour but less than what families need to survive.

Gonzales came to the United States with the help of the National Labor Committee, the independent labor group that exposed the use of child labor at plants that produced Kathie Lee Gifford's fashion line. At first Gifford denied knowing about the conditions in the factories, but then she became an advocate for better pay and older factory workers.

Combs pointedly noted that he had no plans to seek a meeting and advice from Gifford. "I think this is a very different situation," he said. "We have a compliance officer."

Charles Kernaghan, the National Labor Committee's executive director, said it is likely Combs was not aware of the labor practices at the Honduran factory. But he challenged Combs to become a leader by setting a higher standard for working conditions. "He has the power. He has the stature. He has the following," said Kernaghan.

At his news conference, Combs stressed that his company tries to enforce decent conditions. But Kernaghan noted that inspectors routinely fail to get an unvarnished view of conditions because supervisors overhaul the factory in preparation for the monitors' visits. He said monitors need to talk with workers away from the factory, where the laborers are freer to speak about working conditions.

This was but the first stop for Gonzales, who with her colleagues will begin a tour of high schools and union halls to draw attention to conditions in Honduras. But on Manhattan sidewalks, the teenagers who revere Combs and covet his clothing line expressed disbelief that he would tolerate such practices. "It's his responsibility to know what's going on in his factories," said Bryce Simpson, 16. "I wouldn't think Diddy would let that happen."

Combs did not dodge responsibility. "This is very important to me, the way my brand is perceived and the way we treat people."


Campaign: Successful Turnaround at P. Diddy Factroy in Honduras