Report: Employees Slaving 75 Hours a Week for Chinese Fashion Giant Shein

The website of the Chinese online retailer Shein can be seen on a laptop. Photo: Monika Sk
Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

Public Eye, a human rights advocacy group based in Switzerland, blasted Chinese fashion giant Shein for demanding excessive overtime from its workers in a 2021 report.

On Sunday, Public Eye released a follow-up report that said, “Illegal working hours and piecework wages remain a typical feature of the everyday lives of the workers interviewed.”

“The ultra-fast fashion company, which has come under pressure, is also arousing suspicion due to its opaque finances and because its founder has disappeared from the scene,” Public Eye added in its new report.

The Swiss advocacy group was referring to Shein’s “fast fashion” business model, which offers customers a huge online inventory of clothing items at extremely low prices. The system works by taking advantage of extremely low shipping rates to send parcels directly to customers around the world, rather than paying for warehouses and distribution centers in different countries.

Fast fashion also relies on extremely low production costs, meaning ultra-cheap labor and materials. The originator of the fast fashion model is generally held to be a Spanish brand called Zara, but Shein took advantage of China’s cheap factory labor – plus textiles harvested by even cheaper labor from outright slaves – to sell a vastly larger range of items at even lower prices.

Public Eye interviewed a baker’s dozen textile workers who toil for Shein and its suppliers at six factories in China – factories that the activists had to find with a bit of detective work, since Shein does not like to discuss its supply network – and found 75-hour weeks are “still the norm,” even though Shein’s code of conduct for suppliers sets a 60-hour limit for the work week.

“I work every day from 8:00 in the morning to 10:30 at night and take one day off each month. I can’t afford any more days off because it costs too much,” one worker said.

The interviewees said wages had not improved much either, with the average textile worker making between 6,000 and 10,000 yuan per month (about $830 to $1,380 in U.S. dollars.) The higher end of that scale is usually paid to middle-aged workers who have years of experience with specialized skills.

A good deal of undocumented and unpaid work appears to be required by these factories through policies such as compelling workers to correct mistakes on their own time, or else their supervisors can face steep fines.

Public Eye noted that after its original report on Shein’s labor practices was published in November 2021, numerous foreign media outlets made inquiries, including a British TV expose called “Inside the Shein Machine” that made a big splash in 2022.

The company felt enough pressure to promise improvements and, in 2022, it commissioned a “Supplier Factory Wage Investigation Audit” that supposedly found work requirements had grown more reasonable in Chinese factories, bringing wages up to “above average” levels.

Public Eye dismissed this audit as a dishonest public relations exercise that concealed just how low the lowest wages paid by Shein’s suppliers were, and just how many hours a week employees had to work to earn them. Several of the firms that helped prepare the exonerating audit for Shein have quietly disowned it, removing their supportive quotes from Shein’s website.

Public Eye’s investigators also found lax safety standards at Shein factories, including an alarming amount of smoking in factories filled with flammable textiles and chemicals, and hints of child labor, possibly initiated by workers who wanted to pass their trade along to their children.

Investigators found Shein making “stringent demands” of its Chinese employees far beyond the factory floor, such as heavy demands on photographers, editors, and models to keep its ever-changing website updated with a swarm of new items every week.

“The lack of change in terms of excessive overtime and the other findings from our investigations indicate: Shein will only assume more social responsibility when subjected to external pressure,” Public Eye concluded, skeptical that such pressure would come from a rumored stock IPO, since investors are hypnotized by the company’s immense sales volume and high profit margins.

Shein told the BBC on Sunday it is “working hard” to address its labor issues and has made “significant progress on enhancing conditions.”

“We are actively working to improve our suppliers’ practices, including ensuring that hours worked are voluntary and that workers are compensated fairly for what they do, and also recognise the importance of industry collaboration to ensure continuous improvement and progress in this area,” Shein said.

The fashion retailer said it has no control over some of the details noted in the factories of its suppliers by Public Eye investigators, such as excessive numbers of security cameras and the presence of children in the workplace, although Shein said it does not “tolerate child labor” and will “treat any violations with utmost severity.”


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