Sweatshop Labour in Hip-Hop Apparel

Word Magazine

By Jonathan Cunningham


Many urban consumers are secretly proud that hip-hop fashion and apparel has become a multi-billion dollar industry sprawling across most continents. The trendy designs, which have morphed from the awkwardness of Coogi in the early 1990’s to the chic urban couture of Sean John and Akademiks, have become accepted as “business attire” nowadays within certain offices and professions.

But while many hip-hop clothing label execs like Mark Echo and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs rake in millions of dollars each month from their apparel ventures, millions of garment workers across the world continue to be exploited, raped, and physically abused inside hideous sweatshops, making substandard wages, to produce the hot urban fashion North American consumers are flocking to buy on a daily basis.

While it is true that sweatshop labour is a problem in the garment industry as a whole, and is by no means exclusive to hip-hop apparel, some ensconced within urban culture are beginning to ask if hip-hop clothing labels have an ethical responsibility to ensure their clothes are not being manufactured in a world of virtual slavery.

Latin reggaeton superstar Tego Calderón recently turned down an offer from P. Diddy to model Sean John’s Spring Collection in light of the company’s alleged use of sweatshop labour in Central America. Under the conditions, Calderón was to be paid a modest fee to appear in numerous advertisements across North America including a large billboard in New York’s Times Square. After hearing about deplorable conditions in sweatshop factories in Honduras used to manufacture Sean John and Rocawear apparel, Calderón turned down the opportunity on principle. “Me faltó el respeto (he disrespected me),” Calderón told reporters at the time.

It was a huge slap in the face to Diddy’s camp, and an even larger victory for anti-sweatshop activist around the world who’d been longing for a big name entertainer like Calderón to publicly take a stand.

According to Charles Kernaghan, Director of the National Labour Committee (NLC), a New York-based non-profit that brought forth the sweatshop allegations against a factory in Honduras producing Sean John and Rocawear apparel in 2003, most urban consumers would be appalled if they knew of the horrendous conditions garment workers were forced to endure inside sweatshops to make hip-hop apparel.

The Sean John allegations, which made international headlines in late 2003, involved workers from the Southeast Textiles (Setisa) factory in Chaloma, Honduras who complained of mandatory pregnancy tests, locked bathrooms, forced non-paid overtime, and drinking water containing fecal matter inside the factory. 20 workers who attempted to form a union at the Setisa factory said they were immediately fired, and subsequently smuggled Rocawear and Sean John labels out of the sweatshop as evidence of the clothes manufactured inside the factory. A year and a half later, however, Rocawear still refuses to comment on the story while Sean John claims no responsibility for the working conditions inside of factories which they merely subcontract with, and do not actually own.

“At any given time, we’re in 60 different factories and we spend a lot of money on compliance,” said Todd Khan, C.O.O. for Sean John via phone from New York. “Can there be a time and place where products are made outside of our standards, of course, but we’ll seek to correct those problems immediately when we’re notified.”

While refusing to admit fault, Kernaghan says Sean John did make numerous improvements at that particular factory after the story broke, but most importantly, did not pull any of its work orders, which would have left many inside the plant without jobs.

“Sean Combs didn’t pull out of the factory, and he did the right thing,” says Kernaghan. “But it took a lot of public embarrassment for him to make any improvements.”

According to the NLC, there are currently over 2.4 million sweatshop workers worldwide, 90 percent of which are young women between the ages of 15-22 years old. The majority of these workers live in Latin America or Asia where labour laws are easier to ignore and garment workers have few other option of employment. Most anti-sweatshop organizations clearly define any textile factory where workers are paid less than minimum wage, subjected to deplorable working conditions, and physically or verbally abused as a sweatshop.

Trina Tocco of the International Labour Rights Fund in Washington D.C. says that often, the problem with nailing sweatshop abusers is that clothing companies like Rocawear and Sean John almost never own the factories where the human rights violations take place.

“It’s a load of crap when companies try to hide behind that excuse and say they’re not responsible for the way workers are treated,” says Tocco. “They all want to have their clothes produced at the cheapest prices possible and the truth is, these companies couldn’t care less about the conditions workers are forced to endure.”

Other clothing companies that focus on hip-hop apparel such as Timberland, Karl Kani, and Perry Ellis have been at the centre of anti-sweatshop campaigns in the past as well. As recently as December of 2004, China Labour Watch, a private NGO that monitors factory conditions within China, uncovered a sweatshop owned by Kingmaker Footwear Holdings Ltd, where the bulk of Timberland’s overseas production takes place. According to documents, investigators noted numerous child labourers in the factory, and a work schedule that requires employees to spend 91 hours or more per week at their machines to meet production quotas. And while Timberland boots and shoes often retail for upwards of $85 a pair, workers in the Kingmaker factory are paid a mere 55 cents for each pair of Timberlands they make.

Despite American sanctions imposed in 1997 against all US investment in the South Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which is officially classified as a military dictatorship, companies such as Perry Ellis and Karl Kani still produce a significant amount of their apparel within the countries’ borders. According to the International Labour Organization, a tripartite agency of the United Nations, wages for garment workers in Myanmar is a mere 4 cents per hour.

Repeated calls to the offices of Perry Ellis and Karl Kani for comment went ignored. Timberland representatives however, were willing to admit in a phone interview to having prior knowledge of all sweatshop conditions, including the use of child labour inside the Kingmaker factory, but choose not to pull its production orders in an effort to save some 4,700 jobs in that particular textile factory which Timberland helps support.

Bob Jeffcott of the Maquilla Solidarity Network, an anti-sweatshop monitoring agency in Toronto, recognizes the need for smaller countries like Myanmar and Vietnam to compete in the textile industry but is quick not to label any sweatshop abusing companies as local saints.

“Just because people need jobs doesn’t mean they deserve to be exploited,” says Jeffcott, whose agency monitors labour conditions within textile factories both in Canada, and Latin America.

Not all hip-hop clothing labels are participating in a race for the cheapest labour. No Sweat, an urban apparel clothing line located in the Bangor, Maine sells 100 percent union made non-sweatshop clothing, in an effort to support factory workers who’ve already won their right to organize labour unions in other countries. No Sweat’s owner, Adam Neumann says he has union factories waiting on orders in Kenya, South Africa, and Canada and puts hip-hop luminaries like Dead Prez and Calderón at the top of his list for potential spokespersons.

Other mid-level hip-hop apparel companies such as San Francisco’s Upper Playground feel caught in the middle. Without a large enough budget to provide an onsite quality control manager to monitor labour conditions in factories where they import their t-shirts, Matt Rivelli, owner of Upper Playground, says he’s stuck believing what his suppliers tell him.

“They can tell you it’s not done in a sweatshop, but how can small clothing companies really know?”

Consumers often ask the same question. Jeffcott with MSN recommends consumers demand clearer definitions of where products are made and boycott clothing lines that abuse sweatshop labour.

“People need to send letters, ask questions, and if people are a part of institutions that bulk purchases lots of apparel like a college campus, students who call for ethical purchasing policies are usually effective, says Jeffcott. “If the consumers don’t take a stand, the clothing companies will continue to think using sweatshop labour is okay, and the workers will continue to suffer.”