CHOLOMA, Honduras — Hour after hour, the workers bent over sewing machines in a sweltering factory here. Despite indoor temperatures above 100 degrees, they said, they limited themselves to small sips of water for fear that even bathroom breaks would cause them to miss their production quotas and lose desperately needed pay.
“You have to put up with it to have an income,” said one supervisor whose white hair was pulled back in a loose bun. She asked not to be named for fear of being fired from her job. In recent years, she said, that job included sewing shirts emblazoned with Donald Trump’s brand.
As a candidate, Trump has campaigned on a platform of bringing American jobs back to the U.S. “Craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers have seen the jobs they loved shift thousands and thousands of miles away,” he said during a speech in Pennsylvania last month. “Now it’s time for the American people to take back their future.”
But when it comes to his own businesses, Trump has for years relied on cheap labor in overseas factories to manufacture clothing for his line of men’s suits, shirts, and ties sold under the Trump label available at Amazon and, until last year, Macy’s.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment about the clothing or its production.
From 2004 until last year, Trump contracted with apparel giant Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, or PVH. PVH, in turn, subcontracted some production to Protexsa, a garment manufacturing company owned by one of Honduras’ wealthiest families. Activists said that Protexsa was known for tough working conditions even in a country where workers are frequently abused and silenced.
BuzzFeed News used government shipping records to determine that Trump’s shirts were shipped from the Protexsa factory complex in Choloma, an industrial city on the country’s east coast. The data are collected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and were compiled by enigma.io, a company that provides public access to obscure government data troves.
On Dec. 31, 2012, a ship carrying about 4,000 charcoal-colored Trump men's shirts arrived in Miami from the Protexsa operation in Choloma, the records show. The earliest shipping date in the records was 2007.
Two supervisors at Protexsa also described making the shirts in a factory there. One still works there. Another worked there for a year and a half before quitting in 2014 because, he said, he did not like how workers were treated. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal.
BuzzFeed News spoke this month with more than a dozen current and former workers at that factory complex. Interviewed independently, they described harsh conditions including a dangerously hot factory floor where temperatures sometimes reached 105, verbally abusive supervisors, unsanitary cafeteria food, and an on-site doctor who some said did not acknowledge their work-related injuries.
“You are enslaved by the production goals,” said one former worker who said she was fired without explanation in December. The woman, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation by her former employer, said she worked there from around 2009 until December, making, she said, approximately $61 a week plus a bonus of $8 if she met production goals, which rarely happened. That came out to about $1.60 an hour, she said, and left her with a chronically sore right shoulder from hunching over a sewing machine.
Protexsa declined to make anyone available for an interview or to give BuzzFeed News a tour of the factory. A guard at one entrance of the complex barred a reporter from entering. When asked what conditions were like inside, the guard said they were “cruel.”
In a written statement, Protexsa spokesperson Xiomara Wu declined to address specific questions about working conditions but said the company aimed to “ensure a stable, responsible business model framed by civic and moral values.”
PVH would not comment on conditions for workers in Protexsa’s Choloma factory complex. The company has “a robust audit process in place to identify human rights, employment law, health, safety and other related violations at our vendors’ factories,” spokeswoman Dana Perlman said in an emailed statement. She said PVH no longer makes or sells Trump-brand clothes, nor does it contract with Protexsa any longer.
In 2013, the factory came under scrutiny for “serious violations” in a report by the DC-based labor rights monitoring organization Worker Rights Consortium. The report, which examined working conditions at factories producing clothing for the City of Los Angeles, cited mandatory work on Saturdays and verbally abusive supervisors, among other concerns.
“You see a complex of abuses” at Protexsa, said Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium.
Production of Trump-related clothing and other merchandise has been outsourced to countries with low wages and dismal workers’ rights’ records, such as Bangladesh, China, and Mexico.
In Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world and where more than 62% of the population live under the poverty line, workers continue to labor in jobs with harsh conditions because there are few alternatives, many said.
The Protexsa operation is located in a complex of about two dozen teal and beige–colored buildings inside a tax-free zone in this city on Honduras’ steamy east coast. At the edge of town, a sign declares: “Choloma, Manufacturing City.” Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Pizza Hut line the dusty main road; lush hills rise up in the background.
The complex appears placid most of the day. At lunchtime, workers stream out and push up towards the chain link fence, handing vendors on the outside crumpled bills in exchange for bags of purified water and trays of homemade chicken and rice — many say the food at the cafeteria has made them ill. Small groups of employees search for shade in which to eat their meals quickly; every minute away from their stations brings them further away from their production bonus.
Some workers claim conditions at the factory have affected their health, complaining of chronic pain and rashes. Some also said the factory doctor did not respond to their maladies.
“We suffer from the moment we come in until the moment we leave,” said a woman who asked not to be named for fear of being fired from her job.
At least one former employee reported strong pressure from management to avoid hiring workers who might try to organize a union at the factory. He said he often received handwritten lists from the Human Resources department with names of workers who were perceived as pro-union. When such workers took tests to apply for jobs, he would scuttle their chances by falsely inflating the time it took them to complete the test, he said. The employee refused to be identified because he feared being blacklisted from the industry.
Employees viewed as pro-union were also punished in other ways by their supervisors, the man said. One tactic was increasing already-high quotas. Workers on the iron station, for example, would be required to press the wrinkles from more than 1,660 shirt collars in a nine-hour shift.
Last year, Macy’s dropped Trump’s line shortly after he said in his campaign rollout that Mexicans entering the country are bringing drugs and crime: “They’re rapists. And some I assume are good people.” PVH stopped producing and selling Trump’s line, too, though the company’s spokesperson did not say why.
The workers who labor in the factory are far removed from such details. Many said they don’t know who Trump is. They are focused on trying to feed their families.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the supervisor with the white bun walked out of the Protexsa factory gulping orange juice from a plastic bag. Her team had fallen short of its production quota — again. No one would get the $8 bonus that, she said, meant the difference between between buying her grandchildren school supplies or forcing them to go without.
“There is no future here,” the woman said.
Karla Zabludovsky is the Mexico bureau chief and Latin America correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Mexico City.
Contact Karla Zabludovsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel Wagner is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Daniel Wagner at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.