Misleading TikTok video claims Shein clothing tags contain calls for help

A viral video shows legitimate depictions of messages written by “fast fashion” garment workers pleading for help from Shein and other companies.

The context

Many of the images included in a viral TikTok video, which denounces the labor practices of Shein and other so-called “fast fashion” brands, were misleading. They were not from incidents in which actual notes of people seeking help were found in bundles of clothing. However, in at least two cases, the origin of the notes was unclear and the results of the investigations launched upon their discovery were unknown to us at the time of this writing.

Fact check

In early June 2022, various social media users claimed to have found posts by garment workers on clothing tags from Shein and other companies containing pleas for help.

In many posts, people uploaded photographs of a label that read, “Tumble dry, do not dry clean. Due to the water-saving technology, you need your help to wash with the mild detergent the first time to make the items softer. Here’s a screenshot of a tweet containing the photo, with the Twitter user’s name cropped for privacy:

Despite what the caption says, it’s not clear what brand of clothing this tag is attached to in the photo. It also seems clear that the phrase “need your help” is not a cry for help but clumsily worded washing instructions for the garment in question. We emailed Shein asking if the tag above was attached to her clothing, and will update when and if we receive a response.

Shein posted a video to their official TikTok account debunking claims that the ‘call for help’ and other viral images were linked to their brand, stating:

“Shein takes supply chain issues seriously,” the statement said. “Our strict code of conduct includes policies against child labor and forced labor and we do not tolerate non-compliance.”

Some claims that the phrase “need your help” was a hidden message. We found no evidence for this, especially since the phrase appears as part of a longer sentence that has a different meaning.

The viral TikTok video

A very broad vision TikTok Video contained images of tags with various messages asking for help, with the seemingly broader message that fast fashion companies are employing garment workers in such dire conditions that they are reaching out in desperation via messages surreptitious on clothing labels.

It’s no secret that the apparel industry has been credibly accused poor working and operating conditions. That said, the TikTok video is misleading in that not all of the images included in the video can be described as fast fashion clothing labels. Some of the images were screenshots taken from old news reports, while others weren’t necessarily related to garment work stories.

A frame from the video, which to date had been viewed more than 40 million times, shows a woman against the backdrop of a FedEx package with the word “Help” scribbled in ink on the outside. In this case, it is unknown who wrote “Help” on the packaging; however, garment workers are unlikely to have access to a package at the shipping point. It seems more likely that it was written by someone along the delivery chain from shipping to receiving. Aside from the caption added by the TikTok user, we couldn’t find any labels on the package itself indicating that it was sent by Shein:

Person, Human, Text

One of the notes in the video read “Help me please” handwritten on a piece of cardboard. According to the dispatches, this note would have been found in 2015 by a woman from Brighton, Michigan, inside a package of underwear. The underwear was a product of Handcraft Manufacturing of New York but made in the Philippines. A news report said the note was written by a woman believed to be “MayAnn” and included a phone number. The clothing manufacturer launched an investigation after the discovery of the note, the outcome of which remains unclear to us.

Another tag in the TikTok video reportedly read, “I have dental pain.” Again, however, there is no evidence that the label is real. A reverse image search shows that this particular image has been online since at least 2016, periodically appearing as a Example from a “fun” clothing label:

In another image included in the video, a label that reads “help me” is found on a packaging label for clothing brand Romwe, a China-based fashion brand:

But it was not a distress message. Romwe address this problem in 2018, by posting this explanation on Facebook:

Romwe’s products, bookmarks that we included as a gift to some customers, were named “Help Me Bookmarks” (please see the picture below). Some people saw the item label and thought it was a message from those who produced the items. It was not! It was just the name of the article!

We are truly sorry for the confusion. We have now renamed the product Romwe Logo Bookmark.

Another image included in the TikTok video was from a 2014 news article:

Text, document, handwriting

The message has the alert “SOS” written at the top, followed by a message written in Chinese characters. The image comes from a 2014 BBC report on the note, which was found on trousers purchased from a Primark clothing store in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was explained by the BBC as follows:

“The note, wrapped in a prison ID card, claimed inmates were forced to work 15-hour days to make clothes.”

Primark told the BBC it had launched an investigation and said the trousers had been sold for several years before the news was published, and inspections of its supply chain from the time they were made revealed “no prison or other forced labor of any kind was found”.

Another image from the TikTok video contains stock photography, not an image of an authentic clothing tag:

In this image the watermark of the stock photo company Alamy can be seen.

Claims that certain clothes contain hidden messages are popular online – and sometimes true. For example, in 2020, outdoor brand Patagonia sold clothing labeled “Vote the Assholes” as part of the company’s activism against climate change denial. Another post about clothing brand Tom Bihn went viral in 2004 and was (falsely) claimed to target former US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Sources:

The mystery deepens after a Michigan woman finds a “help me” note in her underwear. September 25, 2015, https://detroit.cbslocal.com/2015/09/25/mystery-deepens-after-michigan-woman-finds-help-note-in-underwear/.

“Primark is investigating an allegation of a ‘call for help’ note in pants.” BBC News, 25 June 2014. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-28018137.

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