By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
19-year-old Honduran apparel worker and a leading workers' rights group
said yesterday that the hip-hop artist Sean Combs was using a sweatshop
in Honduras to produce tens of thousands of shirts for his Sean John
The worker, Lydda Eli Gonzalez, said the factory's managers yelled and
cursed at workers, forced them to work unpaid overtime and fired
employees for being pregnant. She said that when workers sought to
unionize last summer to improve conditions, she and 14 other outspoken
union supporters were suddenly fired.
Steve Hawkins, owner of the factory, Southeast Textiles S.A., called
the charges lies and said that the factory strictly complied with the
law and maintained good conditions.
Jeff Tweedy, executive vice president of Sean John, the New York-based
apparel company run by Mr. Combs, who performs as P. Diddy, said: "We
have absolutely no knowledge of this situation. However, we take these
matters very seriously, and we will have our director of compliance
look into the matter immediately."
Sean John is one of the factory's biggest customers. The plant, in
Choloma, Honduras, employs 380 workers who produce long-sleeved
T-shirts with "SJ" or "Sean John" emblazoned on them.
Ms. Gonzalez said she traveled to New York from Honduras to ask Mr.
Combs to pressure the factory's owner to treat the workers better. Her
trip was sponsored by the National Labor Committee, a New York-based
group that embarrassed the Gap, Kathie Lee Gifford and other major
fashion names in exposing sweatshop conditions at factories they used.
Ms. Gonzalez said employees were ordered not to talk during work hours,
needed passes to go to the bathroom and were generally limited to two
bathroom visits a day. Managers called workers on the loudspeakers if
they were in the bathroom more than a few minutes, she said. Managers
often ordered female workers to take pregnancy tests, she said, and if
they were pregnant, they were immediately fired to help the company
save on medical expenses and maternity leave.
"It's a bad place to work, depressing; there's a lot of humiliation,"
said Ms. Gonzalez, who is on her first trip outside Honduras. "They
yell at you with gross words. They call you `dog,' `lazy,' `burro.' "
One day last May, Ms. Gonzalez said, the factory's manager grabbed the
throat of an employee who was complaining that workers were being
"My purpose is to represent all the sewing machine operators in
Honduras and to put an end to the humiliation and labor violations,"
Ms. Gonzalez said. "Sean Combs is a man with great power and influence,
and we think he should help us and help end these violations."
In a telephone interview from Honduras, Mr. Hawkins, the factory's
owner, said: "I categorically deny every single claim they've made.
It's nothing more than a labor union with an ax to grind."
He said that once the union's organizing effort failed, union
supporters retaliated by spreading lies against the factory. He said
that workers were not fired for supporting a union, but for bad quality
or an uncooperative attitude. Honduran law prohibits firing workers for
supporting a union.
Mr. Hawkins said that the factory was air-conditioned, that it paid
overtime and that it had a nurse and a doctor on staff. He said the
factory passed muster with outside monitors who inspected it every few
months at the behest of the companies that use it.
"I never mistreated anybody," said Mr. Hawkins, who said he moved his
operation from North Carolina to Honduras because of pressures from the
North American Free Trade Agreement. "I treat employees just like I'd
like to be treated myself."
He acknowledged that the factory's manager, Delia Cruz, had recently
left the company. "She was much hated and resigned two weeks ago," he
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee,
defended his group's conclusions about Southeast Textiles, saying he
and other committee officials had interviewed about 20 workers from the
"It's a factory where the workers have zero rights," he said. "It shows
the whole charade of monitoring. The workers were ordered not to tell
the truth to the monitors, and they knew if they did they would be
He asserted that Mr. Combs's use of such a factory was more shocking
than Kathie Lee Gifford's. She was embarrassed when a 15-year-old
Honduran girl came to the United States in 1996 to describe conditions
at a factory making goods for the Kathie Lee line, which was sold at
Mr. Kernaghan said the workers received 15 cents in wages to make Sean
Jean shirts that sell for $40. Many workers said the company failed to
make mandatory contributions to the Honduras national health fund, he
"Sean Combs obviously has a lot of clout, and he can literally do a lot
overnight to help these workers," Mr. Kernaghan said. "This isn't
Kathie Lee selling shirts in Wal-Mart for $5.99. He is selling T-shirts
for $40, and you'd expect the workers to be treated better and earn a
Ms. Gonzalez said the workers earned 90 cents an hour, far too little
to support an individual or a family. Many afternoons the seamstresses
were forced to work two extra hours to try to meet a production goal,
she said. The workers invariably failed to meet that goal, she said,
because Sean Jean standards were so exacting. As a result, she said,
the workers received neither a production bonus nor pay for the extra hours.