Greg Wright: We must act now to stop modern slavery

Big business must do more to stop modern slavery, says Greg Wright
Big business must do more to stop modern slavery, says Greg Wright
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THE hot, dusty weather will probably have left its mark on your car.

Many of us will have decided to spend a part of Saturday morning driving to a hand car wash, so our vehicle can be restored to its former glory.

Around 20,000 hand car washes have been established around the country in recent years, so there is plenty of choice.

The vast majority of these businesses are run by responsible, hard-working business owners who treat their staff well.

But it’s possible – just possible – that a trip to a car wash will bring you into contact with a victim of modern slavery.

There is growing evidence of a darker side to elements of the car wash industry. Unseen, a national charity that works with the police, government and businesses to stop workers being exploited, has published a report which suggests slavery still exists on our doorstep.

In recent years, Unseen’s modern slavery helpline has received an alarming number of calls about potential cases of modern slavery in car washes. Between October 2016 and June 2018, 360 cases of modern slavery in car washes were recorded, indicating 2,170 potential victims. Of these cases, the helpline made 401 referrals to outside agencies, including the police.

The largest number of potential victims (266) were recorded around London, but the problem has spread across Britain. In West Yorkshire, for example, there were 119 potential victims.

One victim reported that the workers had been transported into the UK by an unscrupulous employer, who had forced them to live in a bug-infested, unheated house.

They were transported to a car wash in the countryside seven days a week, to work for 10-14 hours a day.

The work was unpaid so all the motorists who used this car wash were unwittingly supporting slavery.

A respected academic, Professor Ian Clark, told MPs that none of the dozens of hand car washes he had studied paid the national minimum wage or the living wage.

Many were breaching health and safety laws. Prof Clark said hospitals had admitted car-wash workers who had developed trench foot and were suffering from hydrochloric acid burns. That’s a high human price for a clean car.

The tell-tale signs of slavery include workers who lack protective equipment, and a pricing system that seems too low.

Our sense of horror that slavery exists in 21st century Britain must be tempered by an acknowledgement of the hard work of Unseen and our admiration for the courage of the whistleblowers.

Big business has the economic muscle to combat modern slavery, but many firms seem reluctant to act.

Kevin Hyland, the anti-slavery commissioner, is calling on the Government to create a central registry for companies’ modern slavery statements.

Of the 25 million people estimated to be in modern slavery around the world today, 16 million are thought to be working within the private sector.

The Modern Slavery Act requires businesses with a turnover of £36m or more to publish an annual statement explaining what, if anything, they are doing to address slavery and trafficking within their business and supply chains.

Mr Hyland said: “While some businesses are showing leadership, compliance with the requirement has been patchy. It is time for this to change. A central registry is key to achieving this.”

In 2017, 43 of the FTSE 100 and more than 40 per cent of the Government’s top 100 suppliers failed to meet the basic legal requirements of the act, the commissioner found.

Two-thirds of businesses in high risk sectors produced statements which failed to provide a reference to slavery or human trafficking risks.

Britain’s largest firms must be forced to reveal what they are doing to stop modern slavery. A single state-owned central registry would act as a public acknowledgement that big business is committed to behaving ethically.

It would help to stem the tide of misery caused by slavery and trafficking which shames us all.