The shocking truth behind your bargain Shein fashion hauls – and why you might want to rethink returns

The shocking truth behind your bargain Shein fashion hauls – and why you might want to rethink returns

IT’S fast fashion’s biggest success story with 2,000 new items a day and yearly profits of £1.4billion.

But a new documentary on All4 has uncovered the dark side of Shein – with factory staff paid just £16.50 for a 17 hour day and fined three quarters of their wage for the smallest mistake.

Iman Amrani investigates the fast fashion app
Iman Amrani investigates the fast fashion appCredit: Zandland
Workers are expected to make 500 garments a day
Workers are expected to make 500 garments a dayCredit: Channel 4

After sending an undercover reporter into two of the factories in China, Untold: Inside the Shein Machine also found workers were given just one day off a month and had pay docked if an item was returned by an unhappy customer.

Journalist Iman Amrani also looks at the alleged “greenwashing” of the company – which is valued at £84billion – as well as “dark” algorithms that manipulate users into buying more.

Human rights journalist Timo Kullbruner tells Iman: “Shein’s model is problematic at both ends.

“We have a lot of people incentivised to buy stuff we don’t need and on the other side the problem is the production circles are so short and the pressure is so high that workers are exploited and work inhuman hours.”

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17 hours days and one day off a month

Turning up for her first day of work at one of the hundreds of factories in the Guangzhou region of China, undercover reporter Mei* asked the hours she was expected to work.

“That depends on when the work is done,” a supervisor is heard to tell her on tape, adding that she will get “one day off a month. There’s no such thing as Sundays here.”

She soon learns that exhausted workers are expected to sew a minimum of 500 garments a day and, despite Chinese law and Shein’s own code of practice recommending 40 hours weeks, they were typically working from 8am to the early hours of the morning to finish the day’s quota.

And with Shein customers expecting fast delivery, each garment has to be shipped on the same day.

“We work at least 17 to 18 hours a day,” one worker tells her. “I’m working on the final inspection process but the people who pack the clothes finish even later than us.”

The incredibly low prices keep customers coming back
The incredibly low prices keep customers coming backCredit: Channel 4
The factory workers are paid 2p per garment
The factory workers are paid 2p per garmentCredit: Channel 4

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The worker also tells Mei that the first month’s wages is typically withheld for another month, and that fines are issued for any mistake.

In the first factory Mei worked in, the basic pay was 130Yuan – or £16.50 – plus 2p per garment.

The average take home, for a 17 hour day, was just £19 but the additional fee per piece is only paid if the 500 minimum mark is met and any error made by an exhausted worker meant another hefty blow.

Mei was told that each mistake would cost her £12 (100 Yuan) – three quarters of her daily wage.

Wages were also deducted if an employee took the day off meaning many, who had left homes in other parts of China to find work, could never visit family.

“This is unreasonable because there is no rest at all,” says Mei. “I feel really tired, exhausted, really exhausted.”

“The atmosphere is very tense in the factory,” Mei told her UK based contact, another undercover journalist who has been investigating Chinese human rights abuses for decades.

“The factory has a very inhuman system. If you make a mistake, for example, cut the wrong thing or make the wrong packaging, the factory will give you a penalty.

“They still exploit the workers like dogs. It’s worse than years ago.”

Dorms with broken toilet

With barely enough time to sleep, accommodation is available onsite but one worker told Mei the eight bed rooms were uninhabitable.

“Conditions are awful,’ he said. “There was no hot water; I had to have cold showers.

“I’ve never been so miserable. The walls are covered in mould. The toilet wasn’t working.”

In a second factory where Mei was employed, conditions were similar.

While pay was slightly higher, at 3p per garment, one worker told her she hadn’t had a single day off in the previous month.

And despite the punishing quota, the workers had to ensure each item was perfect because, as one revealed, “If it’s returned, I don’t get paid.”

“These workers are constantly under pressure and because they are paid per piece they are incentivised to work crazy hours,” says Timo.

A factory employee tells Mei she has no time off
A factory employee tells Mei she has no time offCredit: Channel 4

‘Dark patterns’

Shein – which began as a wedding dress brand and launched into the general market in 2015 – was founded by tech mogul Charlie Xu and now has 43.7million active shoppers.

The programme looks at how the brand uses ‘micro-influencers’ – or influencers with a few thousand followers – to grow their customer base by sending them Shein hauls, which they then show off on TikTok.

But marketing expert Andy Woods reveals the genius of the model is not only in its social media presence and ultra-cheap clothing, but the algorithms that make shoppers come back again and again.

“We looked at dark patterns, which are behaviours on the website which force you into actions you may not choose yourself – such as timing counters on special offers that are going to run out – and Shein came out head and shoulders above all the other (fashion sites),” he says.

Iman with Georgia Portogallo, influencer turned TikTok tutor
Iman with Georgia Portogallo, influencer turned TikTok tutorCredit: Zandland
Shein uses pressure sales through timed offers
Shein uses pressure sales through timed offersCredit: Shein

“Data is making marketing like a loaded weapon. It’s so highly tuned we can virtually manipulate users into doing what we want them to do.”

The documentary also delves into the environmental impact of fast fashion, with campaigners claiming the app had helped reduce clothes to “single-use, disposable” fashion.

TikTok campaigner Venetia La Manna claims fashion causes “more pollution than shipping and oil industry” and adds that the company’s pledge to spend £44million to offset their devastating environmental impact is an attempt to ‘greenwash’ their activities.

“They make it really difficult for us to be able to figure out whether they are greenwashing because of the money they are pumping into these campaigns which they have made through the exploitation of people and the planet, the very thing they are trying to tell you they’re all about,” she says.

Iman put her findings to Shein who responded: “Shein’s business model is built on the premise of reduced production waste on on-demand production.

“The average unsold inventory level is between 25 and 40 per cent whereas Shein has reduced this to a single digit.”

With regards to workers rights it added: “Shein is absolutely committed to empowering our ecosystem partners … which include our supplier code of conduct that complies with the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

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“Shein engages industry leading third party agencies to conduct regular audits of suppliers’ facilities to ensure compliance.

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

Untold: Inside the Shein Machine is available on All4 now.

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Alison Maloney

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