As Evidence of SHEIN’s Bad Labor Practices Grows, It’s Time for the U.S. to Close a Key Trade Loophole

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Oct 17 2022 |
A new documentary now available to stream in the United Kingdom examines how fast fashion behemoth SHEIN exploits workers and keeps consumers hooked.

An undercover documentary finds workers in SHEIN’s apparel factories work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to churn out cheap garments.

The evidence continues to mount that fast fashion behemoth SHEIN is dependent upon some particularly terrible labor practices to make the ultra-cheap clothing it hawks to consumers via social sites like TikTok.

A new documentary investigation from Britain’s the i newspaper and Channel 4 found that factory workers making clothing for SHEIN in China regularly work 18-hour days, earning just 2 cents per item they produce. Weekends are unheard of — “There’s no such thing as Sundays here,” one worker says in the documentary — and employees receive just one day off per month.

An undercover reporter got a job at two factories that make clothing for SHEIN to get a first-hand look into the company’s practices. While “Untold: Inside the Shein Machine” is currently only available to stream in the United Kingdom, Insider has details:

At one of the factories, workers get a base salary of 4,000 yuan per month — the equivalent of roughly $556 — to make at least 500 pieces of clothing per day, but their first month’s pay is withheld from them, per the investigation. Many of these workers toil long hours to earn a commission of 0.14 yuan, or just two cents, per item.

At the second factory shown in the footage, workers don’t have base pay but instead receive 0.27 yuan, or just under 4 cents, for each garment they make, the investigation found.

Employees are hit with a fine amounting to two-thirds of their daily wages if they make even one mistake, according to the report. In one of the factories, female employees washed their hair on their lunch breaks because there is so little time left after work.

In its review of the documentary, The Guardian notes that the story follows a clockwork we’ve seen for decades from big apparel brands who operate sweatshops overseas:

Untold does some good, hard legwork in sequences that nevertheless do not make for arresting television because all sweatshop exposés are the same: the company says it has strict policies on welfare; a journalist gets a job in one of the factories, turning up for work wearing a hidden camera; footage of worker rights and safety being trampled on is obtained. Then the company issues a statement promising to investigate.

What makes SHEIN different than previous fast fashion brands, The Guardian argues, is its business model. The company doesn’t have an advertising budget, instead utilizing a network of micro-influencers via popular social media apps like TikTok to help promote its clothing via popular trends like the “SHEIN haul.” It’s also perfected its algorithm, combining an addictive website with flash sales and ultra cheap prices to hook customers.

And consumers totally are hooked, ethical implications be damned.

“A few years ago, fast fashion was under fire from documentaries much like this one; accusations were made about ethics and sustainability that several big brands felt forced to take on board,” The Guardian argues. “Then Shein arrived, pricing its garments even more aggressively, making them even more disposable, gambling that not many people are willing or able to pay £65 for the good stuff when they can get a quick hit for £4. Shein was right.”

What The Guardian is missing, however, is that there’s a whole lot of policy that’s driving the success of companies like SHEIN.

About a month ago, I had the honor to chat with Ayesha Barenblat of Remake for The Manufacturing Report podcast. Barenblat outlined how SHEIN’s shadowy supply chain allows it to dodge enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans imports of anything made in the Xinjiang region of China, where a modern-day genocide is underway. But because it is unclear where specifically in China SHEIN actually manufactures its garments, enforcement of the law is challenging.

And then there’s the issue of how SHEIN dodges tariffs via the “de minimis” rule. Barenblat explained:

“We really know that SHEIN, frankly, is a byproduct of bad trade policy that needs to be fixed. Because SHEIN produces small batches that are shipped, they currently enjoy a tax-free shipment here in the United States, direct to consumers, because there’s a loophole to say that shipments under $800 aren’t charged import taxes. And that’s really how SHEIN’s really gotten on hold on the market.”

There is not a lot the United States can do directly about SHEIN’s bad practices. But that doesn’t mean we should be subsidizing those bad practices — and since SHEIN doesn’t pay a tariff on its products like other importers, that’s essentially what’s happening.

And if there’s any evidence that SHEIN is producing garments that are manufactured or made with materials from Xinjiang, those items would fall under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and that means nothing from the brand should be entering the United States at all.

SHEIN’s prices are already artificially cheap; it doesn’t make sense that the United States is giving the brand an even easier time by not enforcing its own basic trade laws. It’s time to close the de minimis loophole that allows SHEIN to send its cheap garments to consumers without paying a tariff, and to step up enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to ensure anything linked to the genocide in Xinjiang does not make it into the United States.

If you haven’t listened to it yet, be sure to check out my conversation with Ayesha Barenblat: