Food hygiene inspectors are concerned to find a fully made-up bed on the floor of a small, windowless room behind the busy kitchen of Sam's Great Tasting Chicken, a fast-food outlet on an east London high street. The bed has no mattress, just a sleeping bag laid on top of a couple of dirty blue blankets and neatly turned down sheets.
It is past midnight, and the fried chicken shop is still busy with customers but the raid by 15 officials from local and central government departments has taken the shop supervisor by surprise and he has to get dressed rapidly to answer questions. In this room, tucked beside the walk-in freezer, he has all his belongings to hand: clothes, suitcases, medicine, videos, cologne, shampoos, towels drying on a radiator; he has arranged miniature statues of a leopard, dogs and owls on every available surface to cheer the place up.
The hygiene officials are joined by tax officers who ask him if he's living in the restaurant. He denies it categorically, but can't remember where he lives and struggles to come up with a plausible postal address. "Woodford maybe."
"Do you not know your address?" one of the inspectors asks him. "You must know your address."
"Fifty-eight, isn't it?" the man asks.
Stocked with cheap, imported chicken pieces that are fried and served with chips through the night at low prices, these shops are growing in number on Britain's high streets. They are popular with the young but increasingly unpopular with local councils, who are concerned that the cheapness of the food on sale is reflected in employees' working conditions.
Newham council is working with the UK Border Agency, the police, tax inspectors and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to crack down on what they suspect to be widespread exploitation of staff at chicken shops throughout the borough.
As a result of 19 raids in the past few months, the council has launched 20 national minimum-wage investigations. "We came across one chicken shop where the pay was £1 an hour. To be fair, they gave the workers some free accommodation – a mattress at the back of the shop, with three of them taking turns on it," Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, says. "These people are desperate, just trying to do the best for themselves, but the people who employ them should be in prison. It's outrageous, lots of people are being exploited."
Newham council has long been aware that there is chronic underpayment of staff and a huge problem with working conditions at the hundreds of chicken shops in this east London borough, which next month will be one of the Olympic hosts.
But the council does not have the power to mount raids on suspicion of non-payment of the minimum wage. Instead, it has had to couple wage investigations with hygiene checks – because it has the right to enforce health and safety regulations – or to persuade central government tax inspectors to co-ordinate joint investigations.
During a recent raid, 30 officials split into two teams of 15 to mount evening raids on aroundabout 16 shops. The itinerary has been carefully planned to stop staff fleeing premises at one end of the high street when they see shops being raided at the other, but the evening is nevertheless hampered by managers suddenly pulling down the metal grids over shop fronts and declaring businesses closed for the night.
Before the teams set off, a police officer warns: "These are chicken shops; there will be knives in them as part of their trade, so just be wary." Staff from the DWP benefit fraud team are wearing black protective anti-stab vests.
At Sam's Great Tasting Chicken (which advertises itself to passers-by with a huge lit-up cartoon chicken's head, wearing a cowboy hat and a bow-tie), the dozen teenage customers buying chicken pieces are both dismayed and excited to see inspectors arrive at half past midnight, and exclaim: "What the fuck! What the fuck!" An employee coolly continues to serve people fried chicken pieces as the officials file past him to the back of the kitchen.
The inspectors ask the supervisor why, if he isn't living here, there are piles of letters addressed to him at this address. "How long have you lived here?" His English is not very good, but he explains he has moved here from Pakistan 14 years ago. "You must know your address then."
"He has all the comforts of home here. I can't accept that he is just staying the night here," an inspector says.
The man says he is paid £300 a week to work here as a supervisor, over 12 hours a day, seven days a week, which works out at a rate considerably below the national minimum wage of £6.08 per hour.
He rummages around in a plastic bag, where he keeps his papers, folded in small paper chip bags (decorated with the Sam's Great Tasting Chicken logo, "number one for quality and price"), but he is unable to find any payslips. "OK baby, I will fax it," he tells one of the officials, to her considerable surprise.
This is not the first evidence of staff being accommodated on site. In another chicken shop visited by inspectors, food hygiene staff discover a folded camp bed, made up with blankets inside, next to a cooking stove where a vat of burnt curry is cooling down, in a store room behind the main kitchen. The owner of the establishment says that he is keeping the bed there temporarily for the neighbours, but the inspectors express scepticism.
At Fat Chaps (Best Turkish Cuisine), a middle-aged man from Uzbekistan is serving chips over the counter; the air hangs heavy with the smell of frying, and the floor is slippery with grease. A sign behind him reads: "Please do not ask for credit as a smack in the mouth often offends."
Border agency staff ask the man for his name and passport details, and phone through the information to an immigration call centre, where officials working through the night discover that his student visa was refused in 2009. "You will have to come with us to the police station tonight. You're under arrest for overstaying your visa," a police officer tells him.
They walk upstairs with him to a bare room above the shop, where he changes out of his yellow Fat Chaps T-shirt into jeans that he takes from a suitcase under his bed, and he is taken, without protest, to the police station. A few days later he is deported.
Officials ask the cafe's manager how much the staff are paid. He suggests, hesitantly, £5.80 an hour, and admits that he doesn't know the minimum wage rate. On the other side of the cafe, another cook says he thinks is paid about £4 an hour. Throughout the evening, employees are very clear about the prices they charge for the chicken meal deals they serve, but peculiarly vague about their own pay arrangements.
At Mighty Chicken and Ribs, at around midnight, the extractor fan is not working, the tables are unwiped and grimy, and rubbish is exploding from the bin. The only member of staff on duty, a student from Pakistan, is also unable to give precise details about his pay arrangements, and claims not to know how to contact his employer. Inspectors tell him off for leaving a half-eaten burger (his supper) behind the till and for storing the chicken on top of the bread in the freezer, along with the day's takings (wrapped in a plastic bag). "You can't keep money in the freezer." Border agency staff check on his student visa, which they report is about to expire.
A study into the prevalence of minimum wage abuses recently commissioned by Newham and carried out by Mori and the local charity Community Links, pointed out that employees are often "actively complicit in hiding their employers' malpractice because they want to protect their jobs".
It is uncomfortable that the people most alarmed by the night of chicken shop raids are the employees: young teenage brothers from Pakistan who are obliged to show inspectors their living quarters above the shop, students from Bangladesh, who watch with growing unease as border officials check their papers. The shop owners are largely absent, and may receive notification of further action by post later.
Sheila Roberts, the borough's enforcement manager, who has participated in a number of raids, says one employee was so frightened by their arrival that he went to hide in a freezer. She argues that the action has to be taken because employers who do not pay the minimum wage are often violating other regulations, and their staff may not feel able to report injuries or problems.
There are hundreds of chicken shops in Newham, and although some of them do operate legitimate businesses, inspectors say it is rare to visit one and not find some kind of irregularity. The raids are partly an attempt to clear the area ahead of the Olympics, she says; "We don't want visitors to come to Newham and have negative experiences." More importantly, officials "don't want Newham's residents to be exploited", she says. "These are vulnerable people."
Sir Robin Wales has no affection for chicken shops. "There's too many chicken shops; there's too much litter; they attract problems. But the main thing is they're selling really, really cheap chicken to kids," he says. To be able to sell such cut price food, "very cheap, poor quality chicken" is used and employees are paid very little.
"Good employers are finding it hard to compete. Why should people who are paying the minimum wage have to compete with these people? It makes sense for us to cut out this exploitation of people.
"While a raid like this will be difficult for those people [who are being exploited], ultimately if we catch people who don't pay the national minimum wage, then we can stop it. You have to do it."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012