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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Shein suppliers’ workers doing 75-hour week, finds probe


Workers for some suppliers of the Chinese fashion giant Shein are doing excessive overtime, a non-governmental organisation has suggested.

A number of staff across six sites in Guangzhou were found to be working 75-hour weeks in a report by Swiss advocacy group Public Eye.

Public Eye’s David Hachfeld stated that there was “enormous pressure” on staff to turn clothes around quickly.

Shein stated that supply chain issues are taken seriously and that the report will be reviewed.

Researchers from Public Eye visited 17 factories near Shein’s headquarters in Guangzhou that supply Shein and its parent company Zoetop. Typically, the organisation campaigns against large Swiss corporations and their international dealings.

It interviewed ten workers from six of those sites, all of which were receiving orders from Shein at the time.

They reported that the employees they spoke with worked three shifts a day, with only one day off per month.

According to Public Eye, the fact that workers, primarily migrants, are paid by the item of clothing they wear encourages them to work long hours.

Although such hours aren’t unusual in Chinese production hubs, they violate local labour laws, which set out a maximum working day of eight hours, as well as a 40-hour working week.

Shein said: “Upon learning of the report, we immediately requested a copy and when we receive and review the report, we will initiate an investigation.

“We have a strict supplier Code of Conduct which includes stringent health and safety policies and is in compliance with local laws. If non-compliance is identified we will take immediate action,” the spokesperson said.

Last year, Public Eye launched an investigation into Shein, which works with thousands of suppliers, in order to learn more about the fashion giant’s structure.

The private company does not release financial information, but its sales are thought to have increased during the pandemic as consumers shifted to online shopping. According to data provider CB Insights, revenues will exceed 63.5 billion yuan (£7.4 billion) in 2020.

The supply chains of so-called “fast-fashion” companies, which sell low-cost clothing, have come under scrutiny.

According to Victoria Bellandini, senior fashion lecturer at the University of Lincoln, “you cannot get clothes that cheap that are made in good working conditions, and we can’t source these problems until we really know where our clothes are coming from.”

“Big brands say they check their suppliers, but so much of this is outsourced to cheaper factories, implying a widespread lack of transparency behind industry standards,” she said.

“The fashion industry is changing to some extent at the higher end level, but this isn’t happening for lower-priced clothing brands.”

The online-only fast fashion giant

Shein has gained huge attention on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok

£1.50 tops, £10 midi skirts – and even a £30 wedding dress.

Shein is winning over young shoppers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia by producing fast fashion even faster and often at lower prices than competitors Boohoo and Asos.

It has been in operation since 2013 in its current form. The company relies on thousands of third-party suppliers in China to produce small batches of clothing in quantities ranging from 50 to 100 per item.

If the items are popular among its trend-conscious customers? Shein places additional orders with its suppliers. If not, it will be discontinued.

Shein has accelerated the “test and repeat” model popularised by Zara owner Inditex and H&M. Only 6% of Shein’s inventory is kept in stock for more than 90 days.

Read more about the secretive fashion firm that’s taken over TikTok.

Mr Hachfeld, who is also the director of the Swiss Clean Clothes Campaign, suggested that the long hours observed were “directly linked” to China’s piece-rate system.

“If you have that without putting limits in place… it automatically leads to long working hours because workers need to make a living.”

“It’s striking to see that a company with such enormous influence and turnover is apparently not yet acting on its responsibility to ensure that pay rates are at a level where you can make a good living within normal working hours,” he added.

Several workers stated that in a “good month,” they could earn up to 10,000 Yuan (£1,186). In slow months, their pay could be cut by two-thirds.

According to the Public Eye report, some claimed to be working without a contract, though workers generally stated that they were paid on time.

Shein in numbers

  • 6,000 new items added daily
  • £7.90 average item cost
  • 250 million followers on social media
  • 200 in-house designers of more than 7,000 employees
  • 25 day turnaround time for a piece of clothing

The NGO also went to the 16 million square foot Shein warehouse on the outskirts of Guangzhou, from which the company ships its clothes. Approximately a dozen employees interviewed there stated that they worked similar, long hours.

Researchers discovered no emergency exits and barred windows at one supplier site, which could be fatal in the event of a fire.

The fast fashion firm outlines a code of conduct for suppliers on its US website.

It states that they must “provide a safe, sanitary, and healthy workplace environment,” and that working hours must adhere to local laws and regulations.

The e-tailer works with 200 contract manufacturers in addition to thousands of smaller suppliers throughout its supply chain.

According to the BBC, the company conducts quarterly assessments of its suppliers, sometimes involving external auditors.

However, politicians in the United Kingdom are concerned about the business model.

Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, previously told the BBC that “when the price is too low, you have to ask who is really paying and how.”

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the company’s production and promotion of crop tops and bikinis on social media.

Shein maintains that its method of producing clothing in small batches is more efficient and that very little waste occurs. It also states on its website that it wants to source more recycled fabrics and uses less polluting printing technology for graphics and patterns than traditional screen printing.

However, according to Roberta Lee, a sustainable fashion stylist, the company preys on “the fears of outfit repetition syndrome,” with pieces likely to be discarded to landfill after a matter of weeks.

While Public Eye would like to see stronger regulation of the fast fashion industry, Mr Hachfeld believes that “taking a slower approach to fashion consumption and making the next click count is a good place to start.”

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