The textile recycling sector has been hit by a crime wave, with charity and council clothing banks being effectively stolen and rebranded. Organised modern slavery gangs are also conducting fake door-to-door collections and stealing material directly from clothing banks.
It is a shocking state of affairs. As with previous serious organised crime stories reported by MRW, uncovering the facts and revealing the perpetrators can be difficult. The legal process makes naming names fraught.
What we can say is that the textile recycling sector is frustrated by the lack of response from police and that, without concerted action, criminals will continue to prosper.
First off, a story broke on BBC Radio Five Live in March about the organised theft of around 750 clothing collection banks over 18 months. The Textile Recycling Association (TRA) said it was aware of one operator alone removing 200-250 banks, at a cost to legitimate operators of around £370,000.
TRA director Alan Wheeler said the thefts were costing charities dearly: “The cost of a new bank is about £600, then you’ve got to brand it and transport it. It might take four to eight weeks to replace one that has been taken. You are talking of a cost to replace an illegal lift of maybe £1,200-£1,500.”
According to Wheeler, one dodgy operator was using a bogus removal compliance firm to lift banks illegally from sites, after sending flase enforcement letters.
“The police has been very ineffective in dealing with this issue,” he said. “It is being treated as civil matter and not a criminal offence.
“We have developed a protocol for our members to deal with this, and it does seem to be working. We send our members some carefully crafted wording warning that if the bank is not returned within seven days, then a criminal offence will have been committed. There have been some successful civil prosecutions as well.”
Jose Baladron, recycling development manager at clothing reuse charity Traid, said textile theft of either entire banks or material from banks was not a new problem and that it had warned the Government back in 2011.
He said: “Traid welcomed a meeting between then civil society minister Nick Hurd and detective chief superintendent Steve Head with charities involved in the collection and resale of textiles to tackle growing theft. Then, as now, Traid reports incidents of theft to the police but little or no support is offered to apprehend thieves and secure prosecutions.”
Theft of door-to-door collection bags is also now so widespread that the Clothes Aid charity has written to the Fundraising Regulator about unregulated bogus clothing collectors and unlicensed clothing collections.
In January, MRW reported that six people were arrested after dawn raids in Newcastle and Gateshead following claims that charity bag collectors were victims of modern slavery, with a suspected Lithuanian organised crime group the culprit. And the TRA has now seen evidence that an Essex-based gang is using forced labour to steal from banks at locations around the M25. It said legitimate operators lost around £50,000 last year as a result.
“They are known to be targeting clothing collection banks and use various illegal means of gaining access to steal clothing,” said Wheeler.
“They employ people from eastern Europe who speak little or no English. I’ve heard stories about passports being withdrawn when they get here. They get paid well below the minimum wage and are housed in appalling sub-standard accommodation. I’ve seen pictures of people being put up in containers with just a sleeping bag.”
So where next? Wheeler has called for a high-level stakeholder summit involving the police, National Crime Agency, charities and the recycling industry: “That is something we clearly need to do. I expect something to happen later in the year because this kind of activity really can’t go on.”
A Wolverhampton-based charity called Helping Our Future has been accused of rebranding hundreds of banks with its own livery. Helping Our Future has denied any wrongdoing, but the Charity Commission said it was subject to an investigation and that it had “serious concerns about its management and activities”.
The commission is examining trustees’ oversight of the charity, relationships with commercial fundraising companies and “whether the charity’s management and operations have given rise to inappropriate benefit on the part of private individuals or companies”.
Wheeler said: “Greater Manchester has had a crackdown on all bogus banks on their land, and removed around 20 Helping Our Future banks.”