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P. Diddy and Hip Hop's Tattered Garments

Hip-hop fashion kings need to take a hard look at the labor conditions that prevail in the factories where their clothes are made.
 
 
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In a company financial profile, Sean John bills itself as a designer, producer, and distributor of high-end urban fashion, targeted at men between 12 and 45. The chairman and CEO of the company is hip-hop entrepreneur-icon Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. The company's designer T-shirts and sweatshirts sell for upwards of $40 and are gobbled up by thousands of Comb's starry-eyed fans and wannabe hip trendsetters.

But 20 workers at the Honduras factory where his clothes are made, recently took some of the hip out of Comb's fashion line when they accused his company of making big profits while paying them dirt wages (as low as 75 cents for 11 to 12 hours work), refusing to contribute to a health care plan, and summarily firing workers who protested their ill treatment.

P. Diddy quickly went into damage control mode, feigned ignorance and promised to investigate and take action if the charges were true. But a Sean John representative hotly disputed the charges and claimed that the company paid fair wages and did not mistreat the workers. Yet hundreds of American garment manufacturers and fashion makers such as P. Diddy have long thumbed their noses at those who protest the horrid working conditions, union busting practices, and the disgracefully low wages they pay workers at their factories in Central American and Asian countries. They have resisted countless attempts by international labor organizations and government agencies to get them to adhere to a fair code of labor practices.

According to the National Labor Committee, a New York-based activist group that monitors labor practices in poor countries, Sean John clothing is also made in China, Vietnam and other countries that have been repeatedly accused of worker rights abuses. In China workers are forced to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with one or two days off a month. Wages can be as low as 16 cents an hour. There are no unions or workers rights organizations there. Any worker trying to exercise that right will be fired, and even imprisoned.

In Vietnam, wages are $30 to $35 a month, and there are no limits to the number of hours factory workers can be or are forced to work. There have been volumes of reports of workers being fired, and jailed for protesting the slave-like labor conditions in factories in the country.

During the 1990s, President Clinton made the first real effort to curb the rampant exploitation of foreign workers by American garment manufacturers and fashion designers. He met with top executives in the clothing industry to discuss ways that unions, government, and the apparel industry could work together to improve working conditions. The Labor Department made an attempt to enforce The Fair Labor Standards Act's "Hot Goods" clause. That allowed the department to fine and seize the goods of those manufacturers and retailers who knowingly sell merchandise manufactured by companies violating the law.

Then Labor Secretary Robert Reich at a retailer's summit in New York called on the giant clothing manufacturers and retailers to help eliminate sweatshops.

The summit issued a statement of principles in which clothing retailers would require their suppliers to adhere to fair wages and standards laws. More than 100 American clothing retailers pledged to back the labor laws.

But many other garment manufacturers have ignored the pledge and continue to do business as usual. The temptation to make huge profits off the backs of foreign factory workers is too great. And Combs may not be the only hip-hop star turned fashion mogul that may have yielded to that temptation. A decade ago, former Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons saw the huge market potential in clothing wear. He started the Phat Farm clothing label that sold a variety of sportswear mainly geared to young males. A few years later Simmons expanded the line into women's fashions.

In 1999, Roc-A-Fella Records CEO Damon Dash and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter launched their Rocawear label following Jay-Z's successful Hard Knock Life Tour, in which the rapper and his label mates appeared onstage in company gear. The clothing became an instant hot seller. Rocawear chalked up $250 million in retail sales last year.

With sales of more than $300 million from his clothing line, Combs, and the other hip-hop artists, have made clothing sales a profitable staple in their financial empires. But with Combs under fire for sweatshop labor practices, the hip-hop fashion kings need to take a hard look at the labor conditions that prevail in the factories where their clothes are made.

P. Diddy is a wildly successful fashion seller. But none of that counts for much if the tag on his clothing lines comes with a sweatshop label. He can shed that label and can be an example of a good corporate citizen for other hip-hop clothing sellers by speaking out against sweatshop labor. That's the hip thing to do.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.