SHEIN UK: are workers being exploited by fast fashion clothing brand? Investigation reveals working conditions

A new Channel 4 documentary has revealed that staff work up to 18 hours per day and only get one day off per month

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The supposedly exploitative working conditions at fast fashion brand SHEIN have been exposed in a new undercover All4 documentary.

The documentary, which is part of Channel 4’s Untold series, has also discovered exploitative pay structures and working hours, as well as relentless marketing techniques and a culture of stealing designs from small, independent designers.

So, exactly what is fashion brand SHEIN, what else does the documentary show, what has the brand said about the claims and how can you watch the documentary?

Here’s everything you need to know.

The supposedly exploitative working conditions at fast fashion brand SHEIN have been exposed in a new undercover All4 documentary. The supposedly exploitative working conditions at fast fashion brand SHEIN have been exposed in a new undercover All4 documentary.
The supposedly exploitative working conditions at fast fashion brand SHEIN have been exposed in a new undercover All4 documentary.

What is SHEIN?

SHEIN is a Chinese online fast fashion retailer. It was founded in 2008 by Chris Xu in Nanjing, China. The company is known for its affordably priced men’s, women’s and children’s clothing.

On its website, the brand describes itself as “a global fashion and lifestyle e-retailer committed to making the beauty of fashion accessible to all.”

They also state: “We use on-demand manufacturing technology to connect suppliers to our agile supply chain, reducing inventory waste and enabling us to deliver a variety of affordable products to customers around the world. From our global offices, we reach customers in more than 150 countries.”

What did the investigation reveal about SHEIN working conditions?

For the documentary, an undercover journalist filmed conditions in SHEIN’s factory in China for the first time.

The undercover reporter first got in contact with SHEIN by applying for jobs at factories supplying SHEIN. Her initial discussions with factory managers revealed that there are no defined working hours, and workers get one day off per month.

This is despite the fact that only having one day off per month violates both Chinese labour laws and SHEIN’s own Supplier Code of Conduct.

Factory bosses were found to be under a huge amount of pressure to deliver hundreds of small batches of clothes in record time during the investigation, and this created a stressful and exhausting working environment for staff. It was also found that workers regularly got into disagreements with bosses over quality control and workloads.

Staff also did not have set working patterns, and instead workers were encouraged to stay as late as possible to hit clothing quotas, for which they were financially incentivised.

Workers also reported working up to 18 hour days, starting at 8am one morning and sometimes not finishing till 2am the next. New workers also claimed that they were not paid their first month’s salary at the end of their first month of work, and instead only received it after their second month of working.

Workers also claimed they were financially penalised for mistakes, with one mistake costing up to three quarters of an average worker’s daily salary which was 100 yuan or around £12.

Speaking within the documentary, the undercover reporter says: “I feel exhausted. If you want to rest or ask for leave, or go back to your hometown, your salary will be deducted. I don’t find this reasonable. There is no rest at all.”

What claims have been made about SHEIN copying other designs?

Journalist Iman Amrani, who presents the documentary, also spoke to one small independent lingerie designer called Fern during the documentary who said she had one of her designs copied by SHEIN.

Fern typically charges £65 to £70 for one of her sets of lingerie but was contacted by a customer who said they’d seen a near exact replica of her design on SHEIN, selling for £4 to £7.

Fern said: “I posted about it on Twitter, and I made an Instagram post calling them out and that’s when they replied back to me. They took the listing off the shop and they kind of apologised and gave me an email address to contact - which I did and then never got a reply.

“These people in these factories that are making clothes for SHEIN, they probably have more hours’ practice and experience behind them than I do. Why should I get paid a decent wage and they don’t?  It’s incredibly unfair, and to think that I or a design I had stolen played a part in that was really upsetting.”

What have SHEIN said about the claims?

The makers of the Untold documentary contacted SHEIN with the findings to enable them to have the right to respond, however, to protect both the undercover reporter and those she worked with, Untold did not disclose the exact locations of the factories filmed in.

In response to the findings, SHEIN said: “SHEIN’s business model is built on the premise of reduced production waste and on-demand production. The average unsold inventory level of the industry is between 25% to 40%, whereas SHEIN has reduced it to a single digit.”

Specifically on the matter of working conditions and hours SHEIN said: “SHEIN is absolutely committed to empowering our ecosystem partners.…which includes our Supplier Code of Conduct, that complies with the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation

SHEIN engages industry leading third-party agencies to conduct regular audits of supplier’s facilities to ensure compliance.

“Suppliers are given a specific timeframe in which to remediate the violations, failing which, SHEIN takes immediate action against the supplier, including terminating the partnership.”

In response to the matter of design theft, SHEIN said: “When legitimate complaints are raised by valid IP rights holders, SHEIN promptly addresses the situation.”

How can I watch the documentary about SHEIN?

The documentary, called Untold: Inside the SHEIN Machine, is available on Channel 4 streaming service All4 from Monday 17 October.

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