NEW YORK — Charles Kernaghan wants to make Sean “P. Diddy” Combs sweat a little.
Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, kicked off a new anti-sweatshop campaign on Tuesday against the hip-hop star’s apparel company. But he argued that Combs could use his celebrity standing to help in the battle against abusive working conditions in garment plants.
Speaking at a press conference in front of the still-under-construction Sean John store on Fifth Avenue in Midtown, Kernaghan charged that a Honduran factory that produces Sean John clothes operates as a sweatshop. Joining him was Lydda Eli Gonzalez, who said she was a former worker at the Honduran knitwear factory, who recounted alleged abusive treatment at the hands of factory management. Gonzalez said workers at the factory labored through shifts up to 12 hours in length, while supervisors screamed at them “every second” to work faster.
“They all use vulgar, gross words, like bitch, mule, burro and other worse things,” she said through an interpreter. “If we complain, then we are very repressed, punished or fired.”
WWD reported Kernaghan’s plans to make the allegations on Tuesday.
Gonzalez, 19, said she went to work at the factory in July 2002 and was fired on Aug. 15 for demanding better treatment. Gonzalez and Kernaghan charged that workers are forced to work overtime but are denied overtime pay, are made to submit to pregnancy tests, are provided with unsanitary bathrooms and drinking water, and are not routinely enrolled in the country’s mandatory government health care system.
Sean John executive vice president Jeff Tweedy said the company had no knowledge of any such treatment of workers.
“We are shocked at this information, particularly because we had no knowledge of any wrongdoing and because we conduct extensive compliance checks with all facilities supplying our company to ensure they are clean and safe,” he said in a statement. “In fact, our compliance officer conducted five inspections of this factory alone in the past year, a subcontractor inspects the facility every two weeks and several other major companies using this factory have conducted their own compliance checks….If there is any proof of wrongdoing we will terminate our relationship with this factory immediately.”Executives at the factory, Southeast Textiles, also known as Setisa, could not be reached for comment.
Kernaghan said Combs’ celebrity status could position him to be a leader in the campaign to improve the well-being of workers in the Third World.
“This is not an attack upon Mr. Combs,” he said. “I believe he doesn’t understand, doesn’t know, about the conditions. Mr. Combs has the visibility...the following, to be a leader.”
He acknowledged that the conditions at the Setisa factory were not atypical for Honduras.
“It is not the worst factory,” in the country, he said. “It would be from average to a little bit worse.”
Still, he argued that U.S. importers’ current auditing practices, which typically alert outside contractors as to when inspections are planned, are an ineffective tool in preventing worker abuse. When compliance officers arrive, he asserted, “All of a sudden, the workers aren’t yelled at. The moment the auditors leave the factory, conditions return to how they were.”
Kernaghan said he gathered his information about the factory this summer by interviewing workers outside the workplace, which he argued is more effective.
He said workers at the factory were paid average weekly wages of $33.14 to $50.18, while Honduran government data suggests that a family of three needs to earn at least $46 to pay for food.
Kernaghan made headlines in the mid-Nineties when he revealed that workers in Honduras and New York producing Kathie Lee Collection apparel for Wal-Mart were working in sweatshop conditions. He said conditions have improved in developing countries’ factories, but contended there is still a long way to go.
“If you put pressure on companies, they will change,” he said. “Child labor is now a line they will not cross. Where it gets much more difficult is when you say the workers deserve their rights and a fair wage, to climb out of misery andpoverty.”
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