• Wash Doctors

Modern slavery in car washing; it's time for a revolution

Updated: Mar 30

The existence of modern slavery in hand car washes in the UK is acknowledged as a serious problem. While many run as legitimate businesses, some are involved in severe criminal exploitation of workers. This is why Wash Doctors aim to shake the industry on its head, starting with our fairly treated washers.

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In 2015, the death of Sandu Laurentiu ignited concerns around the treatment of car wash workers. The 40-year-old Romanian labourer was electrocuted while taking a shower in the flat provided by his employer, who had illegally bypassed the electricity meter and tampered with the fuses, making it unsafe.

The employer Shaip Nimani, 53, owner of the car wash Bubbles in East London, employed six Romanian men, paying them £40 per day but deducting £40 every week for accommodation, described by the court as “almost abject squalor”. He was charged with gross negligence manslaughter.

Police raids have revealed some horrific conditions: Working gruellingly long hours with no breaks, for little or no pay and under threat of violence. Workers may not be provided with protective clothing against the wet conditions and harsh chemicals, resulting in a growing number of trench foot cases, breathing problems, acid burns and skin corrosion. The use of cash also raises suspicions of tax avoidance and organised crime.

As reported in the Guardian this week, the problem has arisen due to economic restructuring, which has left some outdoor business spaces abandoned and under pressure to find new ways to make money, leading to an increasing number of unregulated cheap hand car washes sprouting up all over the UK, with many taking advantage of vulnerable EU migrant workers.

What’s happening to stop this?

Fortunately, initiatives to eradicate this exploitation are now gathering pace. Last month, the environmental audit committee (EAC) commenced its inquiry into hand car washes. In June, the Safe Car Care Campaign, led by the Church of England, the National Crime Agency and a number of other organisations, announced the launch of their new mobile phone app, calling for individuals to report any signs when they spot them.

If you suspect anything, such as fearful behaviour, the use of children, absence of receipts, or lack of protective clothing, you simply answer a short set of questions on the app related to the conditions. You can also contact Modern Slavery Helpline.

Look out for low prices too. We are all familiar with the local £5 hand car wash but the Safe Car Wash App indicates we should be suspicious if prices are below £6.70. Basic calculations of the number of cars, workers and revenue per hour shows below this barely covers minimum wage, and that’s not even taking account of owner profits and overheads.