Modern slavery in car washing; it's time for a revolution
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
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.
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.
So, what are we doing differently at Wash Doctors?
Not only are we structured differently to these businesses, but we take fair pay very seriously. Our goal is to create not just a convenient car wash, but one which plays a role in the community.
Our washers are at the core of our service. Unlike on-demand apps like Deliveroo or Uber Eats where riders are couriers of the food made elsewhere, we rely on them to uphold our high quality service standards.
Recognising and rewarding the hard work they do, washers get 75-80% of the fee of the wash price and can earn up to £150 a day, depending on demand and the number of jobs they choose to complete.
Operating 7 days a week, we aim for an appropriate number of contractors to cater to demand, so that they are free to to choose how much they want to work; whether this is 2 days a week or 5. We have regular get togethers to promote a team culture too.
Another key aspect of our inclusivity, is the Washers’ daily interactions with you, our customers. This is a very important part of service delivery for us, and any comments you make are fed back to Wash Doctors HQ. Some of our best ideas have come conversations between customers and our washers!
We're aware some people find local car washes a bit intimidating, so we are doing everything we can to promote a family-friendly service. Over time we hope you become more familiar with your local washers.
You may have also noticed post-wash ratings and comment boxes now on the app - please do utilise this service. This is all part of connecting our team, the washers and you as customers, so we can uphold the quality of your service.
The future gig economy
The car wash industry labour market must change and we hope by offering a service where you can trust our valeters are treated fairly, Wash Doctors can be part of the solution. In addition, with controversies around the gig economy and string of cases against Deliveroo, Uber and the Pimlico Plumbers case, it has never a better time to take the needs of workers seriously.
We aim to create a positive work environment, delivering on expectations and ensuring the work is suitable for the needs of our contractors. Our goal is to make working for Wash Doctors not only the opposite end of the spectrum to modern slavery in the car wash industry, but a prime example of a balanced work environment in the gig economy.
Looking to join a growing, dynamic team? Apply to be a Wash Doctor here.