- Names in this feature have been changed to protect identities
Sites across the UK are complicit in the exploitation of undocumented workers – most of them from overseas. CN has spent six months investigating the industry’s hidden black market – and why prosecutions are so rare.
The crowd of eager workers rushes towards the dark green hatchback as it approaches the kerb.
By the time it comes to a halt, there’s a group of 20 men gathered around the car. A brief conversation ensues between the driver and two workers, after which the three of them drive off. The rest are left to kick their heels on the pavement, awaiting another opportunity.
If the two chosen workers are lucky, they will get enough money from the job to buy some food, pay their rent and a little extra to send home to their loved ones.
But there could be worse in store.
Because this same pick-up point has been used by another driver who has been abducting workers, forcing them to work and imprisoning them, often for weeks at a time.
“He comes and is threatening us, to beat us up and stuff like that,” a worker called Victor tells CN. “My brother got in his car but I got him out. [The driver] then chased me,” he says, recalling the encounter he’d had with the driver in question.
black market person 1
It’s 7.30am on a grey Wednesday morning and Construction News is watching the desperate scramble that takes place daily in the road beside a car park of an east London DIY store.
This is a regular sight in areas across London, as predominantly non-UK workers attempt to secure a day’s work from unscrupulous construction employers. CN visited four sites with a translator on multiple occasions to get a closer look at the black market for labour on sites.
Victor continues to watch the road as he speaks, having only agreed reluctantly to the interview on the basis he can leave immediately should the opportunity to get in a car arise.
Despite the risk of violence, intimidation and exploitation, Victor will still try to get into the next vehicle that pulls up. He still waits from 5:30am every day at this pavement.
For him, the dangers are just part of working in construction’s black market.
“He comes and is threatening us, to beat us up and stuff like that. My brother got in his car but I got him out. [The driver] then chased me”
Victor is from Romania and speaks no English. His round babyface and striking blue eyes sit in contrast atop a long heavy frame. His head remains bowed as he speaks, jolting his head up occasionally to check CN is still listening.
He has been coming to this site for three years and regularly works long hours in dangerous conditions on construction sites, often to end up without a penny to show for his efforts.
“They take advantage,” he says. “But that’s because of my own stupidity in working for them. If I don’t go and work, I won’t have the money to support my family. It’s not like they force you – and you can’t just go and take them to court afterwards.”
Construction has always had a large black market operating both in isolation and on the fringes of mainstream work. The practice of men loitering in an area hoping to be picked up for site work is also nothing new.
Some of the pick-up locations CN visited were the same places Irish workers waited seeking work back in the 1970s and 1980s. These days, the majority of men waiting are Romanian, speak next to no English and are regular targets for those looking to exploit cheap labour.
How to spot signs of exploitation
There are a number of signs of trafficking and labour abuse. Not all apply, and victims may be reluctant to share their experiences.
The questions below can help point people in the right direction if they are concerned:
- Are workers in possession of their passports and ID documents?
- Do they show signs that they are being controlled (can they move freely and speak to other people or are they being threatened and subject to measures keeping them on site)?
- How long are their working hours and do they ever have days off?
- Is their accommodation up to standard and do they know where they live?
- How much are they being paid? Do they have access to their earnings?
The Metropolitan Police has seen a massive increase in allegations of exploitation in the construction industry over the past two years.
“In 2014, the number of allegations were in the single digits, which is crazy when you consider the number of people we see working in construction,” says detective chief inspector Phil Brewer, who heads up the Met’s modern slavery and kidnap unit.
Although modern slavery is widely adjudged to be on the rise, he says the scale of the industry’s problem is underestimated, with many cases still going unreported.
According to DCI Brewer, the majority of these are in the “domestic-type construction” such as home extensions and renovations. But he also believes that exploited labour is present on larger projects where huge supply chains operate, often for larger clients and contractors who may be unaware what is happening on their sites.
For the last six months, CN has been investigating this black market of construction workers operating in the car parks of DIY stores and builder’s warehouses across London. This involved hours of speaking to predominantly Romanian workers that wait at these pick-up spots for jobs, via a translator.
CN discovered how workers are consistently being exploited and, in the worst cases, how alleged “pimps” profit by providing cheap labour for British construction sites.
‘Look at my hands’
“It’s from that pavement I can support my family,” says Nicu, gesturing to a strip of road next to a south London home improvement store.
The pavement is scattered with workers that keep their eyes fixed solemnly on the road, their only movements being the occasional turn to the left or right to keep the wind from their faces.
Those that don’t find work will keep their roadside vigil for as long as 10 hours and return the next day to do the same, come rain, sleet or snow.
Nicu has been coming to this site to wait for work for 10 years and bears the marks of a decade of hard labour. He has a stoop, a slight limp and cranes his head to speak because one of his eyes is swollen shut.
He never explains the cause of this injury.
black market person 2
“Look at my hands,” he splutters, opening his palms and twisting his wrists for CN to inspect. His skin is a patchwork of blisters, bruises, scars and cuts stained black by dirt – the result of years spent working without gloves, he tells CN.
Nicu’s clothes, like those of many who wait for work, are threadbare: worn, dirty and unsuitable for gruelling outdoor labour. Today he’s wearing a battered old Sainsbury’s fleece that was probably maroon at some point but is now a ragged brown.
“In this country you don’t get anything for free,” he tells CN with a wry laugh. “It’s hard here… it’s cold… you wait outside here for a job. Sometimes you get one, but people don’t pay.”
The reason he’s kept coming to this pick-up point for a decade is because of the money he can send back to his family in Baia Mare, north-west Romania. His father left the family home when he was young and he became the provider for his mother and four siblings.
“I’d rather not eat and send them what I have back; £40, £50, as much as I have. I can still manage here, but back home [life] is hard.”
The economic disparity between the UK and Romania is such that even a few days’ work below minimum wage is enough to provide for these workers’ families. “If you get one day’s work over here and you earn £80, you must work for almost one week for that in Romania,” Nicu says. “If you get three days in a week, that’s good money.”
For these workers, the benefit of delivering even the smallest of sums often outweighs the prospect of being exploited, making it all the harder for DCI Brewer and his team to convince people to report those profiting from their situation.
“One guy went to paint a house, he fell off the ladder, he broke his hand. What did his boss say to him? ‘Go to the hospital’.”
“The fact is that sending £20, £30 or £40 back home is money that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to provide for their family if they were working legitimately in their country of origin,” DCI Brewer tells CN.
“They know they are being exploited and it’s almost like it’s an acceptance, because there is some benefit to them in terms of keeping their family on the straight and narrow and surviving, and that’s the real challenge.”
But soliciting work outside DIY stores can be dangerous.
Nicu was once picked up by a Portuguese man who took him all the way to Dover. He was promised £70, but once the day’s work was done, he was abandoned in the port town with no money. Nicu speaks limited English and it took him two days to make his way back to London, only managing to do so thanks to a chance encounter with a Romanian at a train station.
The working conditions that workers like Nicu encounter when they arrive on construction projects are also often dangerous. Being expected to carry out unsafe tasks in hazardous conditions is a regular occurrence, often without proper tools and inevitably without the right safety equipment and PPE.
“I’ve climbed on top of houses and done roofing, painting… I was scared,” says Nicu. “You have to do it because [if you refuse] they don’t pay you.”
Like many of the men gathered at these car parks, Nicu fears injury – not necessarily because he’d rather not be hurt, but because of the implications of being unable to earn money.
He is one of multiple workers CN spoke to who have seen accidents that left people unable to work, with those employing them taking no responsibility.
“One guy went to paint a house, he fell off the ladder, he broke his hand,” Nicu tells CN. “What did his boss say to him? ‘Go to the hospital’.”
‘It is difficult to accept’
Cristian began his life in the UK by waiting for work with other Romanians at known pick-up points.
A trained carpenter, he gradually found more regular work with a few small British firms who recognised his skills.
As Cristian’s English improved and his relationships with these contractors strengthened, they asked him not just to work, but to recruit.
He soon turned to the meeting places outside London DIY superstores to bring in Romanian labourers for his firms. But rather than pulling up in a car and taking whoever got in, he preferred to deal directly with the pick-up locations’ “pimps”.
black market person 3
He explains to CN that he would park his car away from the regular scrum of workers and deal with those negotiating on their behalf. These middlemen would explain to Cristian which specialities they could offer him and what the workers’ rates were, which were then negotiated.
Although he always paid the workers directly, Cristian says that if they ever needed to work for longer than anticipated, they had to inform those negotiating on their behalf.
He believes the “pimps” charge workers for arranging their pick-ups, pointing out that they did not work themselves and would wait until the end of the day with those not collected for jobs.
It is difficult to establish the level of control these middlemen have over these locations or the workers.
CN has witnessed these negotiations taking place between non-working “pimps” and potential customers. On one occasion, one man pretended to carry out repair work on a van as cover for recruiting workers, who were then taken to a customer. In another instance, a group attempted to physically intimidate CN and our interpreter until we left the site.
The only clear leverage these middlemen held over the workers we encountered appeared to be that they spoke better English, or that they had transported the workers to the pick-up point themselves. To the casual onlooker, it would be hard to determine there was a hierarchy at these locations at all, let alone that there was any violent or criminal control.
“I’ve climbed on top of houses and done roofing, painting… I was scared. You have to do it because [if you refuse] they don’t pay you”
“Between the zero-hours contracts and modern slavery, we see so much exploitation that may not necessarily result in a police prosecution,” DCI Brewer says.
“The fact is that we have more success with things such as sexual exploitation because the majority of victims are female and there is quite a strong network for finding them support through non-government organisations and charities, and they are more willing to engage in those processes for support.”
Another challenge for the police is that victims don’t feel able to commit the time needed to see a prosecution through to conclusion.
“With labour exploitation, what you don’t need – because you’ve come over here to earn money for your family – is to get bogged down in supporting a court case which may impact on your ability to find additional work,” DCI Brewer says. “All the time you’re supporting that investigation you are not able to work, so you’re not providing for your family.”
black market person 4
The Met’s modern slavery chief also believes the demographic of those falling victim to this type of crime is a factor.
“In the construction industry most of the victims are men and you also have that added shame of being ‘had over’,” he tells CN. “You’ve let your family down and psychologically it is quite difficult to accept that you’re a victim and seek support from the police or one of the agencies.”
Despite the difficulties in taking prosecutions forward, in the past year there have been some construction-related modern slavery cases successfully pursued by police.
In April, David Lupu, a Romanian national who supplied labour for demolition work, was sentenced to seven years in prison for slavery offences.
This was followed in September by Thames Valley Police making three arrests following allegations of modern slavery on sites in Buckinghamshire.
‘I told him to stop – it’s dangerous’
Lunchtime is approaching and the workers outside a builder’s warehouse on the edge of a major London ring road are getting edgy.
“I’m stressed and I’m angry,” Gheorghe tells CN’s interpreter when asked if we can have a quick chat. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
The boss of the firm Gheorghe normally works for is in hospital, so he’s had to come here to tout for work. As the clock ticks down, the chance of him securing a job lessens.
His worries increase when his mother-in-law turns up to the pick-up point with a warning. She says the Home Office picked up workers from this location yesterday and deported them.
CN finds her in the warehouse cafe, spinning coins around the table with her fingers and cradling a mug of milky coffee. “We thought you [CN and the interpreter] were policemen dressed as civilians,” she confesses after we’ve spoken for a while.
She’s worried about her son-in-law waiting for work at this location and fears he’ll be picked up and deported, leaving her daughter alone in the UK with the couple’s two young children. “I told him to stop coming here because it’s dangerous now,” she says.
Outside a van pulls up, an English driver gets out and starts gesticulating at the Romanians gathered in front of him. To Gheorghe’s relief, the driver is from a north London-based tiling business, rather than the Home Office, and needs a couple of workers.
There’s a chance Gheorghe won’t get paid of course and that his mother-in-law will have to support him again, as has happened in the past. Not that she sees much benefit in reporting it to the police if someone does take advantage of him.
“Maybe they will send the person who didn’t pay me to prison, but they still didn’t pay me, so what’s the point?”
“If I call the police and say, ‘Look they haven’t paid me’… in this country it’s not legal to work [without papers],” she says. “Maybe they will send the person who didn’t pay me to prison, but they still didn’t pay me, so what’s the point?”
This unwillingness to come forward poses a barrier to any attempts at preventing this type of exploitation.
But there’s an equally damaging wall of silence on the client side of the industry.
When these workers end up on larger building sites, their services having been procured via the “pimps” Cristian describes, the companies running those developments aren’t interested how they got there.
“[It] didn’t matter,” Cristian says. “All it mattered for the builder was to bring them people because they needed them and they are difficult to find.”
For DCI Brewer, this silent arrangement is difficult to police. “It’s almost like a mutual acceptance that from a victim point of view you’re not going to get paid enough, and from a suspect point of view you’re getting extremely cheap labour,” he says.
black market person 5
The large supply chains that exist in the construction industry only adds to this, he points out. “When most of your work is subcontracted, the further down the line that goes, the greater the chance of exploitation.
“Everyone is taking their little cut and it gets to the point where the only way that you can make a significant amount out of that particular contract is to employ people at significantly lower cost. To police it is difficult, and the further down the chain you go the harder it is.”
The first time CN visited one of these sites, we were confronted by a worker who said we had already made up our minds about the article we would write.
‘So what should we write?’ CN asked him.
“It’s a sad story,” he replied. “The sad story of Romanians in construction… that should be the title of your story.”
Translations: Razvan Radu Boros
Illustrations: Hannah Emmett
Agencies and late pay – the obstacles to going ‘legal’
Many people CN spoke to as part of this investigation began life in the UK by waiting for work at pick-up points before moving to mainstream businesses.
However, a number of workers told CN that the complicated payment systems used by agencies like umbrella companies (firms set up to provide payroll services to businesses and workers) was so unreliable that they had no option but to return to waiting for work in car parks.
John, who CN meets at the pick-up location in east London, came back to the site after he was left waiting two months for payment from an umbrella firm.
“I waited two months for my pay cheque,” he says. “I had £400 to receive. I waited and waited, I called and I called.”
Fortunately for John he was able to live with some siblings, but the experience gave him serious reservations about working on a large site. “I would like to work for an agency that doesn’t take advantage of me,” he says.
He told CN the reason he took the risk was simple: despite the dangers of the environment and the possibility he won’t get paid, it was still more reliable than working for an agency that used an umbrella company for payment.
Unlike many of the others seeking construction work, John has a CSCS card and speaks good English.
The complications that stopped him being paid were far greater for the workers that didn’t speak the language and spoke little English, he says.
Black market construction exposed: Where modern slavery starts