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Gary Younge

West End side ... rapper Sean Combs
Taking the rap for fashion 'slaves'

But the lifestyle of those producing his streetwear, in a Honduran sweatshop, has been compared to "slavery" in which workers are forced to take pregnancy tests and fired if the results are positive.

In a press conference held outside the clothing store Combs plans to open in the spring, a former employee of the Southeast Textiles S. factory in Choloma, Lydda Elie Gonzalez, said workers had 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."

Ms Gonzalez, 19, said supervisors "stand over us shouting and cursing at us to go faster ... They call us filthy names.

"We should be paid what we're owed. We make so little that it's not enough to have a dignified life."

Ms Gonzalez said she was fired after she tried to organise a union.

The factory's owner, Steve Hawkins, said that the claims of substandard conditions were "completely groundless." He said Ms Gonzalez was a disgruntled worker fired for producing poor quality merchandise, not clocking on when she arrived and repeatedly showing up late.

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labour Committee, which exposes sweatshop conditions responsible for much of America's most popular apparel, said the factory workers were paid 15 cents to sew a long-sleeved, baseball-style Sean John men's shirt, which sells for $40 at the glitzy New York store Bloomingdales.

Mr Kernaghan says he is not calling for a boycott of Sean John but calling on Combs to use his influence to improve conditions in the plant.

"This is not an attack upon Mr Combs," Mr Kernaghan said. "I believe he doesn't understand or doesn't know the conditions around the world in the factories which are producing his goods.

"This is an appeal to Mr Combs to do the right thing. These women need these jobs. And they are willing to work very hard but they want to be treated like human beings."

Combs says five inspections were carried out last year. He would terminate his relationship with the factory if the abuses were confirmed.

The controversy could be a significant blow to Combs, who models himself on the domestic diva Martha Stewart, currently under investigation for insider dealing. As well as his fashion line Combs owns Bad Boy Records and a New York restaurant, Justins.

One of his records, and arguably his anthem, is It's All About the Benjamins, referring to the $100 bills which carry the face of inventor and diplomat Benjamin Franklin. As Ms Stewart has found out to her considerable financial cost, any bad publicity for the individual affects the brand and vice versa.

"It's very important to me the way the brand is perceived and the way we treat people," Combs, 33, said in a brief statement. "I want to make sure that any merchandise that has my name on it is made by workers who are well treated.

"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."

But Combs is now a multi-millionaire, leading a ghetto-fabulous lifestyle, who recently chartered a plane to take his friends to Morocco for a birthday party.

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