75-hour weeks for Shein: Public Eye looks behind the Chinese online fashion giant’s glitzy front

Today’s hippest teen-fashion brand is growing rapidly – and its internet-based recipe for success is top secret. Still, Chinese researchers working on behalf of Public Eye managed to visit some of Shein’s suppliers in Guangzhou, where conditions of production violate numerous state labour laws. Our trip inside the ultra-fast fashion leader also takes us to the European logistics centre in Belgium, where precarious working conditions are also a daily occurrence.

Welcome to the largest textile company you have never heard of. The TikTok generation, however, has long associated Shein with a wide range of trendy clothing at lowest prices, which are aggressively marketed on social media and make top dogs like H&M or Zara look old fashioned. In the United States in spring 2021, the Shein app was downloaded more frequently than the one from Amazon. The rising star managed to catch up with H&M and Zara’s parent company Inditex also in terms of revenue, but due to the direct delivery business model, there are no reliable figures on market share or profit. With a production cycle of three to four weeks, Zara has to date been the byword for fast fashion. Shein can supposedly produce a dress within a week – from design to packaging. Public Eye decided to find out who is paying the price for this super cheap, ultra-fast fashion.

Researchers, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, shed light on the other side of the glitzy Shein world. They travelled to the narrow streets of the mega city Guangzhou, where Shein is headquartered and where its most important suppliers are located. The researchers located 17 of the 1,000 companies who produce for Shein, including numerous informal workshops with no emergency exits and with barred windows that would have fatal implications in the event of a fire. The employees, who without exception come from the provinces, graft for 11 to 12 hours a day and have only one day off per month. That makes for 75 hours work a week, which violates not only Shein’s Supplier Code of Conduct, but Chinese labour law, on numerous counts. Anyone willing to work in practice two jobs – and what’s more without a contract or premium for overtime – won’t earn more than 10,000 Yuan (CHF 1,400), even in good months.

Similar conditions prevail in Shein’s huge, main warehouse located an hour’s drive from Guangzhou. It employs over 10,000 people and operates 24/7. Twelve hour working days are common practice. Employees also complain of such “Chinese standards” at the logistics centre in Liège in Belgium, where European returns were processed until recently and where we saw the situation for ourselves. The most frequent cause of dismissal there is failure to meet unrealistic performance targets, which must be achieved to earn the wage of EUR 12.63 an hour. Until June, 30,000 returns – including from Switzerland – were repackaged here daily. Since then, packages have likely been making the full journey back to China. Public Eye also scrutinised the new fashion empire’s complex corporate structure. We found a great deal of offshore entities to disguise ownership and avoid taxes, which appears to be a common practice in China, too.

Shein’s business model is set up to control as much of the value chain as possible, while taking on as little responsibility as possible. Through its combination of a cutting-edge online strategy and archaic working hours, the Chinese newcomer is perfecting the fast fashion industry in a particularly insidious manner. In doing so, it is taking the sector’s tradition of shunning responsibility to another level. The only means of countering this development is to impose a requirement of transparency in relation to supply chains and to introduce political guidelines on corporate responsibility. It is up to the Swiss Federal Council and industry associations to act to this end.

For more information contact:

Oliver Classen, Media Director, +41 44 277 79 06, oliver.classen@publiceye.ch

David Hachfeld, Textiles Expert, +41 44 277 79 14, david.hachfeld@publiceye.ch

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