Valued at US$100 billion ($150 billion), fast fashion brand Shein is in hot water after a recent Channel 4 documentary hosted by British journalist Iman Amrani, Inside The Shein Machine, lifted the veil of secrecy behind the corporation’s operations in China. In the documentary, an undercover worker was sent into Shein’s factory in the Chinese province of Guangzhou, and revealed that workers often start work at 8am and finish in the early hours of the next morning. As reported by ChargedReta
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edRetail, workers are expected to make hundreds of items during their shifts, while their average daily wage hovers around the £56 ($100) mark. If they make a mistake during the process of manufacturing items of clothing, they are fined two-thirds of their daily wages. Moreover, employees are forced to work on weekends, and only given one day off a month. Women in one factory were filmed washing their hair during their lunch breaks, since they have so little time outside of their shifts. While the Stylist noted that Shein’s sales have increased recently by 400 per cent to £14.5 billion ($26 billion), driven by highly effective influencer marketing targeting young female consumers, industry experts say it’s a mistake to place the blame on individual shoppers. “At a time when the cost-of-living crisis puts consumers increasingly under strain and limits their own ability to make ethical decisions, it is not consumers’ actions we should be focusing on,” Natalie Swan, labour rights project manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in the UK, told Inside Retail. She believes companies like Shein need to be called out and held accountable for their actions and held accountable. “Rather than focusing on changing the mindset of consumers, the greater urgency is changing the mindset of fashion brands,” she said. The next step Swan is of the opinion that the fashion industry’s unsustainable and irresponsible business model has created and sustained conditions for systemic and widespread abuse of female garment workers. “Time and time again, our research has exposed an unfair industry rigged to favour brands at the expense of workers who make our clothes,” she said. She feels that systemic change is needed across the industry, with multiple actors across supply chains making efforts to ensure labour rights abuses are brought to an end. She added that millions of garment workers struggle to survive on the poverty wages they receive, while creating fashion brands’ profits. “Our research shows that the normal wages workers receive are, on average, over four times less than the wage they need to live on. We need to shift away from the norm of a minimum wage and towards a decent living wage,” she said. Shift to a living wage Widely recognised as a human right, a ‘living wage’ is the minimum income needed for workers to meet the most basic needs – food, housing, transport, clothing, healthcare, etc. – for themselves and their families. “Workers must earn enough to be able to comfortably support themselves and their families through a work week that allows them rest and leisure time,” Swan said. She feels that payment of living wages as an industry standard would level the playing field for fashion brands and be transformative for workers. “This should be guaranteed to workers across supply chains, whether they are making the garments in Asia or selling them from shops and warehouses in Europe,” she said. According to her, this is not the case in either region. For this right to a decent wage to be realised, an overhaul of the commercial buying practices of fashion brands is required, alongside the ability to enforce compliance. “The allegations raised in the documentary add to our picture of the unacceptable labour practices conducted throughout Shein’s supply chain,” she said. She feels that Shein must now say how it will tackle these abuses and ensure its business practices and relationships match the expectations outlined in its Code of Conduct. A race to the bottom Iman Amrani, who presents the documentary, summarised the fast fashion industry as a race to the bottom. It’s all about cutting costs, making cheap products and cloning designs. That’s how Shein has maintained its edge in the cutthroat world of fast fashion. Swan, who recently called out factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka for union busting, believes that greater support for freedom of association and collective bargaining would ensure workers like those in Shein’s factories are protected. “Due to the specific challenges Shein garment workers face, at the very least an independent complaints mechanism should be introduced so workers have an avenue to put forward concerns and access remedy,” she said. Interestingly, the company recently launched Shein Exchange, an integrated online peer-to-peer resale destination to buy and sell previously owned Shein products. The service will be available to all US customers with plans to expand to other global markets next year.