Cheetham Hill: Inside the UK’s ‘counterfeit capital’ where workers are paid just £10 a day
The piercing sound of an angle grinder echoes the empty alleyway as armed police cut through a padlock on the backdoor of a shop they suspect is selling counterfeit goods.
One-by-one, officers from Greater Manchester Police barge into the building to find hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of illegal fashion inside.
From floor to ceiling, there are shelves upon shelves of luxury designer brands like Canada Goose and Gucci – but they’re all fakes.
Welcome to Cheetham Hill in Manchester.
For years, it’s been known as the counterfeit capital of the UK, with more than 30 organised crime gangs working in the area.
But it’s not just shoddy fashion and makeup containing toxic ingredients that people need to be concerned about; the illegal trade happening on Bury New Road is having dangerous repercussions felt around the world.
The UK’s entire counterfeit industry is worth more than £8 billion and is proven to have strong links to human trafficking and terrorist organisations.
Greater Manchester Police has launched ‘Operation Vulcan’ to dismantle the gangs responsible and clear out the counterfeits.
The lead officer says the raids will not stop until the shops are shut – for good.
“In just nine weeks we’ve recovered £30 to 40 million worth of grey market goods which equates to about half a billion if they were sold by the brands”, said Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood.
“We’re regularly stopping people with thousands of pounds stuffed down their socks. It’s a cash economy.
“They then go and use this money to buy drugs, to sell drugs, to buy weapons, to further their criminal enterprise.”
Behind the counter of this shop, officers find a cricket bat and a sweet tub of Moncler and Ugg logos – and some strong glue.
Although counterfeiters face up to 10 years in jail for selling fake fashion, it’s not illegal to shop in these stores – and they’re not shy of customers.
But even browsing is a dangerous game to play; shopkeepers know they could be raided at any time and, on more than one occasion, have locked innocent shoppers inside.
“If the police or any other trade official comes down here, they will shut the shutters and lock the doors from the inside”, Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood said.
“We’ve had people reporting sexual assaults. We’ve had people knocked unconscious when they have got into disputes with shop owners.
“These shops will always have something like a baseball bat or a cricket bat or a knife behind the counter because this is not a normal shop.
“This is not a brand of JD Sports. This is a counterfeit shop run by criminals.”
Nearby police find a derelict caravan with smashed in windows.
Gangs often use young migrants as illegal labour, paying them as little as £10 a day to be “spotters” – people who watch out for the police – or add labels to counterfeit goods.
“We believe someone was living in the caravan until quite recently, again it’s the exploitation of the workers”, Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood said.
Above the caravan is an open waste pipe pumping human faeces on top or behind the mobile home that someone is living in.
Police raids are now happening almost daily and in the last few months, millions of pounds of fake clothes – plus drugs and phones – have been seized.
During this particular raid, police officers packed tonnes upon tonnes of boxes full of illegal goods into the back of a truck.
Everything that can be will be shredded and turned into blankets, bedding and insulation.
“A lot of raw materials has gone into this”, explains Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood.
“It is tragic that these shops operate to the point that we will have to go in, spend an awful lot of time and it just goes for repurposing.”
The end goal is to clear out the counterfeiters and cut off cash supply to organised crime gangs – and Greater Manchester Police may not be far off.
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