Workers say they suffered mutiple workers’ rights abuses at a factory producing the Sean John clothing line in Honduras. We speak with the National Labor Committee’s Charles Kernaghan about the conditions in five central American countries now negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.S. known as Cafta. [Includes transcript]
Workers rights activists have accused hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (formerly known as Puff Daddy) of using sweatshops in Honduras to produce his clothing line, which sells under the name Sean Jean.
In a press conference held in October, Lydda Elie Gonzalez, a former employee, said workers have to get passes before they could go to the toilet, are subjected to daily body searches and were forced to work overtime without pay: "We are totally slaves. We live inhumane lives."
Activists say Honduran workers receive 15 cents for the production of each Sean John long-sleeve shirt, which retails for about $40.
Gonzalez was brought to the U.S. last month by the National Labor Committee, a US labor rights group, to highlight what its director Charles Kernaghan calls the shocking conditions in the five central American countries now negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.S.
The regional deal will be the first since the still-controversial North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico to open the US market fully to goods from much poorer countries.
Negotiators from the US and the five central American countries will meet in Washington next week to finalize details of the free-trade pact, known as CAFTA.
- Charles Kernaghan, executive director of National Labor Committee. He says he will meet with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs on Friday to discuss the accusations.
AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan has long been an activist around issues of sweatshops and tonight there will be a major protest in New York outside of a Sean Comb store. Tell us why, Charlie Kernaghan.
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, Sean Combs has a clothing line–Sean John, a very successful fashion company. In fact, one of the fastest growing. Recently in Honduras, we met with workers who made his clothing and were shocked when they told us that to get the jobs, they had to take mandatory pregnancy tests. If they were tested positive, they were fired. They were searched on the way into the factory to take candy away from them. They didn’t want them to soil the garments, God forbid! if they brought in a Tootsie Roll. They had toilet passes; they could use the bathrooms once in the morning and once in the afternoon. They had to raise their hand like little children, get permission, get the toilet pass and give it to a guard and they were allowed to go into the toilet. They were searched before they went into a toilet because they said maybe they would try to steal a Sean Combs t-shirt. If they spent more than two or three minutes in the bathroom they were screamed at and pulled out and put back to the workplace. They were making $40 Sean Combs t-shirts. They were paid 15 cents for every shirt. They were living in abject poverty. The bathrooms had no toilet paper, the drinking water was filthy, the factory was hot and the workers had zero rights. The supervisors would stand over the workers for a half and hour at a time, screaming and yelling at them to go faster. They had no rights. And of course, if they tried to organize a union, they would be fired and blacklisted and if a union came into the factory, they would close the factory down and move it to China. It was shocking to see $40 t-shirts being made under such abusive conditions with people who are living in abject poverty.
AMY GOODMAN: Just for people who don’t know, Sean Combs, P. Diddy, also known as Puff Daddy. Looking at a recent piece in The Washington Post, it says, "hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs built his fortune with swagger and business savvy. But then last month walking into the Hilton hotel he had 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 retailed for $40 in Soho boutiques." He says he first heard the charges while walking the red carpet in Las Vegas at the Radio music awards. On Monday night, he hopped a jet to New York, insisted that he would investigate the allegations thoroughly. Combs said, "I grew up in a family of working people. 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". Now, this is a piece from October 29th of The Washington Post. It’s now a month and around five weeks late he later. Has he responded to your charges?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, actually, there have been some developments last night. We do have a meeting with Sean Combs this Friday. We always thought that he might do the right thing. He said the right thing, but didn’t do anything. Maybe now those words will be backed up. This isn’t Kathie Lee Gifford. This isn’t Wal-Mart. Sean Combs doesn’t have to get down on his knees and kiss Wal-mart’s feet (the biggest sweatshop abuser in the world). This is his company. It has his name on it. He’s supposed to be a progressive person who grew up in a working class family. He is supposed to understand this stuff. Sean Combs could do a lot to end sweatshops and child labor. And so we want him to clean his factory up in Honduras, not to pull out of the factory; workers need these jobs. But get those locks off the bathrooms, end those pregnancy tests, stop the forced overtime, pay the workers correctly, and support the workers right to organize. We intend to come out of Friday’s meeting with a statement from Sean Combs that he 100% supports the worker’s rights to organize, he wants their right respected, and from there, we can build a better model around the world, because he’s also producing in China, the Philippines and Vietnam. In other words, what we uncovered in Honduras is the tip of the iceberg.
Will Sean Combs do the right thing? We hope so. He has the power actually to take the industry to a new level. The shirts are $40 apiece. If he raised the wages of the workers by 66%, so they could climb out of misery and poverty, which would be the goal he would only add 10 cents to the costs of the garment. So instead of being paid 15 cents for every garment, they would be paid the grand total of 25 cents, which is just a little bit more than 0.6% of the retail price. He is in the position. He could do the right thing. This is his own company. This is not Wal-Mart. He has got the power. We were very surprised about how the story went around the world. We didn’t realize — frankly, I didn’t know who he was. We didn’t realize how powerful a person this was or how well known he is. He actually has the power to take the industry up to few notches. We will ask him to do that. We will ask him to disclose the names and addresses of the factories around the world to prove that he has nothing to hide. We will ask that he respond seriously to worker rights violations in the factories. There has to be something in black and white on paper about factory conditions. At this point, we are guardedly optimistic. We think frankly the demonstration could help move things along a little bit.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes at a time of the C.A.F.T.A. talks. I’m looking at Jim Logue’s piece at oneworld.net. He looks at the Human Rights Watch report that just came out charging the Salvadorian government that largely ignores and even facilitates the abuses and he urged that labor rights provisions be included in U.S. Central American Free Trade Agreement. What about C.A.F.T.A. and how this fits in?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, C.A.F.T.A. is going forward. This is their final negotiation in Washington, D.C. This is the final negotiation. What the workers tell you on the ground in Central America, at the very moment that the agreements are going forward, the unions are being wiped out. There’s a concerted attack on the part of the maquilladora companies to wipe out the unions. And they will make room for C.A.F.T.A. The only labor right provisions that the Central America Free Trade agreement has is that the local governments will be responsible to implement their own laws, which is exactly what they never do. As a matter of fact, we brought workers from Honduras to the United States to talk about the Sean Combs case. And the reaction in Honduras on the part of the ministry of labor and the maquilladora associations is to call those women terrorists and traitors for having sold out their country. So in Honduras, if you try to organize, you will be fired and blacklisted, your wages are completely stagnant. This is really the perfect example. Honduran exports to the U.S. have boomed. Honduras is a small country, 6.7 million people. They’re the third largest exporter of apparel to the United States, $2.6 billion a year. They come in right behind Mexico and China. So here is this tiny country, which is the third largest exporter of apparel and its exports last year were up 18.5%. This is trade that is working as it should work, until you look at the workers. Until you see that they’re still living in the same miserable rubbles, their wages are stagnant and they have no rights. If they try to organize they are fired.
AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Kernaghan, where is your protest today?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Tonight it’s going to be rally. We think it’s going to be a victory rally. I actually think we’ll get more news today. It might be a victory rally and we might have someone who is going to step out in front of the anti-sweatshop movement and that person would be a hero, like Sean Combs, if he does the right thing. It will be at 41st street and Fifth Avenue. That is across the street from the New York Public Library. It’s a new store that Sean Combs is about to open. I think it’s going to be fun; this may be a turning point. Might not be a protest, it actually may be a victory rally and good news for the workers in Central America.
AMY GOODMAN: We will report on what happens on Democracy Now! Thanks very much for being with us. Charlie Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee. Your website?
CHARLES KERNAGHAN: www.nlcnet.org. A lot of information on this and about El Salvador, Nicaragua, we are not just focusing on the Honduras. We have plenty of cases to demonstrate that these governments are not implementing their own laws.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! Be back in a minute.