Page last updated at 05:40 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Pirates of the High Street

By Phil Kemp
Reporter, BBC 1 Xtra

DVD sellers will be prosecuted
Bootleg DVD sellers ignore warnings

The signs pinned up on the wall and strapped to lampposts at the Leyton Mills shopping centre in east London couldn't be clearer.

But it's a warning that's failed to scare off the dozen or so Chinese illegal DVD sellers I spotted standing brazenly under the signs, hawking discs all afternoon outside the supermarket.

When I asked one of the sellers how much she'd made, she coyly told me, "No money today" before raising her estimate to 5.

But I could see that she and the other Chinese sellers were tempting quite a few of the passing shoppers with their range of film titles, most of which weren't even in the shops yet and some only just out at the cinema.

"It's too expensive in the shops," one told me.

Film release dates
50 million bootleg DVDs manufactured in UK last year
UK Film and TV industry lost an estimated 500m in 2007
Illegal film downloads cost industry an additional 53m
Source: Federation Against Copyright Theft
"When you've got big screen TVs at home, HD ready and all that kind of stuff, you're better off staying at home in the comfort of your own warmth," explained another.

"People buy children's films from these people because they don't want the hassle of taking their kids to the cinema and paying extra prices to feed them."

Councillor Afzal Akram, who's responsible for community safety at Waltham Forest Borough Council, explained: "When the patrols are there, they do disperse very quickly.

"But we do not have the resources to station somebody there full time at the moment."

Sellers undeterred

The council has prosecuted sellers and even taken out anti-social behaviour orders on them but it hasn't stopped them coming back.

"When you look at priorities in the borough to do with crime, selling DVDs is not a high priority on the police's list."

Sha's in her twenties and has been living illegally in the UK for three years, having made the trip here from Fujian province in South East China.

She paid 20,000 to be smuggled here and, with a baby to support and no right to benefits, she says she has no choice but to sell DVDs to make a living.

"There are many people selling DVDs, and most of them have experience of being arrested. It's very rare to hear of anybody who hasn't been arrested yet," she told our Chinese researcher.

"The only difference is some of them had a serious outcome, others were easily released."

I know hundreds, maybe a few thousand people selling DVDs, but of this huge number, only a few dozen were deported
Illegal immigrant and pirate DVD seller
Sha told us the UK was considered a safer destination for Chinese illegal immigrants because in other countries they were more likely to be stopped on the street by the police and questioned about their immigration status.

"I know hundreds, maybe a few thousand people selling DVDs, but of this huge number, only a few dozen were deported," she said.

Dang's a young Chinese man, who's been in the UK illegally for two years.

He came here to earn money by selling DVDs to send his sick sister-in-law to hospital back in China.

It took him 133 days to make the trip, much of it on foot crossing mountains and living in cramped basements with his fellow migrants away from view.

"We had to hide all the time," he said. "Every twelve hours we'd get a meal which was always boiled potatoes."

Dang told me the people-smuggling gangs would exploit their situation by charging inflated prices, such as 2 for a banana.

"You can always find ways to pay gangs more money to get food but most can't afford it because they've already paid too much for the journey," he said.

A nationwide problem

It's estimated the UK television and film industry lost nearly 500m in 2007 to piracy, up nearly 30m on the previous year.

The Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) says it's a country-wide problem affecting cities like Liverpool and Glasgow just as much as London.

"It's also worth noting that some of the DVD sellers are often the target of robberies," says FACT's director general, Kieron Sharp.

Bootleg DVDs
Pirates of the High Street
BBC 1 Xtra - The Max Show
Weds 10 December 1400 GMT

"Some have been killed, and that's no exaggeration. They have been in London. There's a vulnerability to their situation."

Xiao Mei Guo was last seen selling DVDs in August 2007.

Forty seven year-old, Derek Brown - dubbed a modern "Jack the Ripper" - was convicted of her murder in October, along with that of a prostitute.

Their bodies have never been found.

"He might think, if he did this to my wife or other people, he could hide his crime," her husband, Jin, told me through an interpreter.

"He would have just carried on killing others because of our status thinking the police wouldn't do anything."

At Brown's trial, the judge said Xiao Mei was a "soft target" for a predatory killer because she was a street worker.

Back at the shopping centre in Leyton Mills, even after dark, the young sellers are still doing a good trade.

Waltham Forest Borough Council, in partnership with local businesses, is hoping to station two police officers there to crack down on the illegal selling before Christmas.

It says something about the scale of the problem that the plan is for them to work there full-time.

You can hear the full documentary Pirates of the High Street on Wednesday 10 December between 1400 and 1600 GMT on the Max Show on BBC 1 Xtra. Listen live or catch up on the BBC iPlayer.

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