You may encounter them – and their tormentors - every time you have your car washed.
An alarming number of hand car washes are run by unscrupulous bosses who treat their workers like slaves, according to MPs.
Regulators have ignored the scale of the problem for years. This inaction has allowed some hand car washes to act as a cover for human trafficking. The victims’ misery has remained hidden because their lives are controlled by their employer.
It’s estimated that between 10,000 to 20,000 hand car washes operate in the UK. They mainly compete on costs, so it’s unsurprising that some operators have cut corners.
Given the scale of this sector, it beggars belief that anybody setting up a hand car wash does not require a licence. This could change if the Environmental Audit Committee has its way. The committee, which is chaired by Mary Creagh MP, is calling for the Government to trial a licensing scheme for hand car washes that brings together all of the major compliance requirements , into a single, more easily enforceable, legal requirement.
Ms Creagh said: “Hand car washes are a common sight in our towns and cities. Yet they hide the widespread exploitation of workers through illegally low pay, poor working conditions and in some cases, forced labour. This is unacceptable. We were astonished and dismayed to discover that there have only been 14 minimum wage prosecutions since 1999. The Government must target the sector and prosecute exploitative employers. “This would send a strong signal that worker exploitation has no place in the UK. Regulators seem to turn a blind eye to breaches of planning and environmental regulations at hand car washes. Being labelled as ‘low risk’ must not mean hand car washes are given a permit to pollute.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provided MPs with a grim catalogue of health and safety violations, which included the death of one worker who was housed in unsafe accommodation.
There were also cases of trench foot and chemical burns to workers from prolonged exposure to water and cleaning agents. In the last three years the HSE has taken enforcement action against 103 hand car washes. Car washes are one of the most commonly reported sites of labour exploitation, according to the Modern Slavery Helpline, which recorded 194 cases concerning the treatment of workers in car washes in 2017. This represents 27 per cent of the total cases of labour exploitation.
A study of 450 people who had been trafficked into the UK, found that 40 had been working in hand car washes. Some workers were forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary accommodation with inadequate food supplies and low or no wages. Workers who protested were threatened with the loss of their passports or identification documents.
There is evidence that the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is supposed to protect the most vulnerable workers, neglected the role of smaller businesses, such as hand car washes, in the regulation of slavery.
So what can we do to stop modern slavery on our doorstep? As a motorist, you can keep a close eye on the place you have your car washed. Many hand car washing operations are run by responsible owners. But if the price seems too low then alarm bells must sound. If you have suspicions, tell the authorities. The retail giants also have a role to play. Some of the big supermarkets allow car washers to be opened by third parties on their land. Are they sure these operations are obeying the law?
The chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association Brian Madderson said: “It is extraordinary that we are virtually the only EU country where illegal hand car washing has proliferated over the last 10 years. This must result from the failure of key agencies to enforce their own regulations.”
We’re hardly in a position to take the high moral ground with rogue states, when we allow human rights abuses to take place in our neighbourhood. The victims demand our attention and offer a chilling rebuke to our complacency.