The dark side of Shein and Temu! Are workers exploited, do they use dodgy data to get shoppers hooked to buy more?

Chinese-founded Shein, officially based in Singapore, is known for selling enormous amounts of clothing stock for extremely low prices in countries around the world. Picture: Pexels

Chinese-founded Shein, officially based in Singapore, is known for selling enormous amounts of clothing stock for extremely low prices in countries around the world. Picture: Pexels

Published Apr 22, 2024


A recent survey reports around 250,000 South Africans are already shopping on Shein.

Ths is according to the Marketing All Product Survey (MAPS).

Since rival online shopping giant Temu lauched their “Shop like a Billionaire” app in January 2024, it has become the most downloaded android app in South Africa, with more downloads than WhatsApp, Facebook, Shein, Tiktok and Spotify.

Temu spent nearly $2 billion (over R37 billion) on Facebook and Instagram advertising alone last year, making it Meta’s top advertiser for 2023.

Founded in 2008 in China, Shein quickly conquered the global fast fashion market by selling its products exclusively online and catering to young customers through social media.

Temu was founded in September 2022 and has become an overnight success.

Chinese-founded Shein, officially based in Singapore, is known for selling enormous amounts of clothing stock for extremely low prices in countries around the world.

Temu offers everything from clothing to cell phones and household goods. Both companies have made big inroads in the United States and are seen as upstart rivals to Amazon.

While both of these online retailers have taken South Africa by storm, cybersecurity experts, lawmakers, and fair labour advocates have warned that their business ethics may be questionable.

The cheap prices we pay for products carry a high cost for their employees.

Shein has been accused of exploiting unpaid labour, obscuring production processes and encouraging overconsumption by environmental and human rights activists.

An undercover investigation by Channel 4 revealed that workers in one factory earned 4,000 yuan (R10,223) per month but had to make 500 pieces of clothing per day.

Watch a snippet from the Channel 4 documentary below:

The investigation revealed that employees in Shein’s Chinese factories often work up to 18 hours a day, being paid as little as R0.71 per item, with no weekends and only one day off per month.

Factory workers are fined two-thirds of their daily wage if they make a mistake, breaking both Shein’s and Chinese labour laws.

In another factory, workers did not get paid a basic salary but earned R0.69 per item of clothing.

The documentary shows a man who started work at 8am, filmed sitting shirtless at his sewing machine after midnight, and says he will not finish until 3am because he needs to complete his batch.

Multiple groups of US lawmakers are questioning Shein and other brands that are facing allegations their products use forced Chinese labour.

US House lawmakers have also warned that it was highly likely that some of Temu’s products were made using forced labour in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

A US House Select Committee stated in an interim report that Temu was doing nothing to keep its supply chains free from slave labour. Temu conducts no audits and reports and has no compliance system to ensure compliance with the Uyghur Forced Labour Protection Act.

In a report by the New York Times, Chairman Mike Gallagher of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party’s investigations into Chinese fast fashion brands, Shein responded:

“We are committed to respecting human rights and adhering to local laws and regulations in each market we operate in,” a Shein spokesperson reportedly said.

“Our suppliers must adhere to a strict code of conduct that is aligned to the International Labour Organisation’s core conventions. We have zero tolerance for forced labour.”

The concerns also relate to the conditions under which these companies handle and protect users’ data, and the reputation that the stores have when it comes to deliveries and returns.

Temu’s questionable use of personal data handling

Another of Temu’s major revenue drivers is in the ads space it sells on its website and app.

Temu’s parent company, the Chinese firm PDD Holdings has engaged in potentially illegal monitoring of users’ online activity.

PDD Holdings has another online shopping app called Pinduoduo, which was removed from the Google Play Store in 2023 after versions of the app on other platforms were found to contain malware.

Reports said that the company allegedly had a team of around 100 developers looking for ways to exploit vulnerabilities in Android phones by using malicious software.

Pinduoduo reportedly shut down the team shortly after Google removed the app from its Play Store. Many of the developers then moved to Temu.

Temu is facing a class action lawsuit in Australia for allegedly tracking users’ browser activity by inserting JavaScript code spyware in websites that users visit from the Temu website.

Data acquired by the company included names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and credit card information.

Temu has denied these allegations to NBC Chicago, reportedly stating: "We categorically deny the allegations and intend to vigorously defend ourselves against these meritless lawsuits.

“The truth is that safeguarding privacy is one of Temu's core values. Our privacy practices are in line with industry standards and are transparently disclosed in our Privacy Policy.

“Temu also has a ‘permissions’ section in the Temu app and website that clearly explains the device features that Temu does and does not access. We do not sell customer data to third parties,” the company said.

Shein is valued at $100 billion and Temu at $128.79 billion.

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