Workers who make clothing for Shein at factories in China frequently work 18 hours a day—with only one day off per month—for as little as 3 cents per hour, an undercover investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 found.
“Untold: Inside the Shein Machine,” which was previewed by iNews before its television debut on Monday, follows a woman using the pseudonym of “Mei” as she secretly documents the goings-on of two factories in the city of Guangzhou, where a sprawling manufacturing network pumps out thousands of new styles for the e-tail juggernaut every day.
Mei, a journalist, spotted women at one factory washing their hair during their lunch breaks because they had little free time outside of work. One man, who had started his shift at 8 a.m., was filmed sitting shirtless at his sewing machine long past midnight. When asked how much time off was normal, one worker told her that “there’s no such thing as Sundays here.”
At one of the factories, workers received a base salary of 4,000 yuan ($555.83) a month to make a minimum of 500 garments a day, though the first month’s wages were withheld from them, according to Channel 4. Many of them toiled late into the night to earn a commission of 0.14 yuan, or 2 cents, for every item. Any mistakes, it added, resulted in docked pay.
Those in the second factory didn’t have the luxury of a floor wage. Instead, they received 0.27 yuan, or 3 cents, for each piece they produced. In contrast, Shein’s annual revenue hit at least $16 billion last year, up from $10 billion in 2020, according to Bloomberg insiders. Even with a diminished valuation, TikTok’s most namedropped brand is still worth $65 billion to $85 billion.
Meil described what she saw as a “very inhumane system.”
A spokesperson said that Shein was concerned by Channel 4’s claims, which would violate its code of conduct.
“Any non-compliance with this code is dealt with swiftly, and we will terminate partnerships that do not meet our standards,” the representative told Sourcing Journal. “Shein’s responsible sourcing standards hold our suppliers to a code of conduct based on International Labor Organization conventions and local laws and regulations, including labor practices, and working conditions. We work with leading independent agencies like TÜV, SGS, OpenView and Intertek to conduct unannounced audits at supplier facilities. We have requested specific information from Channel 4 so that we can investigate.”
Still, questions about Shein’s business practices frequently emerge in conversations about its trendy, cheaply priced clothing, which can cost as little as $2 for a crop top and $9 for a pair of flared jeans.
A November report by the Swiss watchdog firm Public Eye documented factories that flouted numerous Chinese labor laws, which limit workweeks to 44 hours and overtime to 36 hours per month. Safety conditions were another concern: At “Shein Village,” a hub in the Guangdong town of Nancun that cranks out clothing nearly exclusively for U.S. teens’ second favorite shopping site, one researcher encountered barred windows, blocked stairways and a lack of emergency exits. “I don’t want to think about what would happen if a fire broke out there,” she said. Shein said at the time that it would launch an investigation.
The latest resale entrant has also been criticized for the mistreatment of warehouse workers who fulfill its orders. An anonymous researcher who spoke to Sourcing Journal found that workers take as many as 70,000 to 80,000 steps a day—the equivalent of 34 miles—to receive, sort, shelve, pick and pack orders. (Amazon fulfillment employees reportedly walk 15 to 20 miles daily.) To run 24 hours a day, Shein’s warehouses operate on a two-shift basis. Workers swap shifts every 15 days, according to employment postings, resulting in disordered sleep and a diminished sense of well-being. Like their cut-and-sew counterparts, hours for warehouse employees are onerous. It isn’t uncommon for a day shift to start at 8 a.m. and finish at 8 p.m, or a night shift to begin at 7 p.m. and end at 9 in the morning, the researcher said. When asked about this, Shein said it requires its suppliers to abide by a code of conduct that includes standards for health, safety and labor practices.
Shein doesn’t own its own factories, but it appears aware of their shortcomings. A 2021 audit of 700 suppliers, which the company noted in its first CSR report in April, concluded that 83 percent of them required corrective action. This included the 27 percent that Shein described as ill-equipped for a potential fire and the 14 percent that had violations regarding working hours.
The rapidly expanding company, which is growing its fulfillment footprint in the United States, has also drawn flak for other reasons. It’s often accused of cribbing the designs of independent artists, for instance. High levels of potentially hazardous substances, such as lead, have also been detected in some of its clothing and accessories, though last year’s most downloaded shopping app says it regularly tests items to make sure they’re in compliance with its restricted substances list. Last week, its parent firm, Zoetop Business Company, was ordered to cough up $1.9 million to the state of New York for failing to “properly handle” a data breach that hijacked the personal information of tens of millions of Shein and Romwe customers—and then misrepresenting the severity of the situation. (Shein said it has since taken “significant steps” to further strengthen its “cybersecurity posture.”)
Neither a $50 million donation to an “extended producer responsibility” fund nor a commitment to slash its emissions by 25 percent by 2030 has dulled the brickbats. For the ultra-fast-fashion purveyor’s biggest detractors, not even an “evoluShein” to use more responsibly sourced materials—such as recycled polyester from plastic bottles, which isn’t short of skeptics—can paper over what they describe as a lack of transparency and true accountability.
Iman Amrani, the reporter who led the Channel 4 investigation, told iNews that Shein has used its knowledge of tech, data and social media to create this “beast within the industry.” One study called the Christian Siriano collaborator the “most manipulative” brand when it comes to using so-called “dark patterns” to goad consumers to spend and keep spending.
“The cost-of-living crisis is very important and some people can’t afford to buy clothes, but we’re not necessarily talking about basic clothes here,” she said. “It’s not about people who are just buying a few items because that’s all they can afford. We’re talking about the lifestyle of buying loads of clothes that you don’t wear, beyond what people need. We’re talking about ‘Sheinhauls.’”