Greg Wright: Licensing scheme for car washes could liberate modern slavery victims

Many victims of modern slavery are being denied justice. Picture: PA
Many victims of modern slavery are being denied justice. Picture: PA
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FOR many of us, August is a month for rest and relaxation; a time to escape the daily grind.

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But, hidden away in our neighbourhoods, there are people who lack the most basic human rights and can only dream of paid leave from work.

Regular readers of this column will know about my long-standing concerns over the rise of modern slavery in Britain.

Some of these slave may be helping to keep your car clean. An inquiry by MPs recently concluded that an alarming number of hand car washes are run by unscrupulous bosses who treat their workers with contempt.

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 terrible accommodation.

There were cases of trench foot and chemical burns to workers from prolonged exposure to water and cleaning agents.

I was recently contacted by Faye Smith, a public relations professional, who works with City Hearts, the UK anti-trafficking charity headquartered in Sheffield. City Hearts told me a bleak story about a man called Peter, which shows there is no room for complacency in the battle against human trafficking.

Peter moved from Romania to the UK in 2014, hoping to find a better life for himself and a job that would allow him to support his mother back home. After arriving in the UK, Peter stayed with his sister while he looked for work.

He soon moved to Scotland to work in an Indian restaurant. He spoke with a friend from home who had also moved to the UK. His friend called one day to tell Peter about a job at a car wash in London, which would be better paid and provide accommodation. Peter accepted the job and headed to London, but it was not what he had expected.

He lived in a tiny house with at least four other men, sometimes more, sharing a cramped room with another man.

After working his first week, Peter asked when he would be paid, to which his boss responded: “Your first week pay is your deposit to work here, you’ll get paid next week.” The next week he was still wasn’t paid, and it became clear he wasn’t going to be.

Peter was forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. He was physically drained and wanted to leave.

One night, the men who ran the car wash told Peter he would have to open fraudulent bank accounts for money laundering purposes. He refused but his boss threatened him repeatedly, saying: “I can find and hurt your family. You work for us now; you belong to us.”

Peter’s boss brought back the fake IDs, but Peter did what he could to delay the process because he was scared and didn’t want to be involved.

He hoped the police would notice the counterfeits so he could tell them his situation and get help, but the fraudulent documents were too realistic.

He said: “One night, when they were drinking and taking drugs, I decided it was my chance to get away. I grabbed some of the fake IDs in the house and ran to the nearest police station. "When I got to the police station, it was closed. I had to get to another station as fast as I could. I ran in and said. ‘I need help’, throwing the collection of fake identities on to the reception desk.”

The Police believed Peter and referred him to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive protection and support.

He moved to one of City Hearts’ safehouses, where he received support in getting a legitimate ID, access to medical services and counselling to help him recover.

City Hearts is helping safeguard more than 600 women, men and children at centres around the UK and helping them to recover from the evils of modern slavery.

So Peter has been saved. But what about the people he left behind?

MPs have been calling for the Government to trial a licensing scheme for hand car washes. Boris Johnson should listen to them.

A tough licensing system, which was vigorously policed and enforced, could destroy the criminal empires built around human slavery.