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Exploitation likely in most UK hand car washes, study finds

17 May 2024


MORE than 90 per cent of hand car washes are likely to be employing workers illegally, without proper pay, records, PPE, or first-aid protection, new research suggests.

Data on the prevalence and location of these businesses were analysed by researchers at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the Clewer Initiative’s Safe Car Wash App (News, 1 June 2018). The church-backed charity works to detect modern slavery and to support victims (News, 20 October 2017).

Location data from the app — through which users can report signs of forced labour in car washes — was used to inform the research. This was collated with similar statistics from NTU’s Work Information and Place Research Centre (WIP). The findings were published this week.

Researchers found that, while there was an increased likelihood of finding exploitative hand car washes in areas that had a vehicle-repairs garage (2.2 times more likely than without) or petrol station (1.75 times), “the correlation between the location of a hand car wash and the presence of slavery is not strong enough to eliminate any specific business and the risk is everywhere.”

Dr James Hunter, the centre co-director and researcher at the WIP, explains: “This is more worrying than if there had been a particular pattern. No community, consumer, or police force can take their eye off the ball.”

Researchers mapped more than 2000 hand car washes in England virtually. Most of these were concentrated in urban areas. It is estimated that there are about 5000 in operation in the UK. Almost 9000 reports were received through the Safe Car Wash App; the highest proportion were from the south-east of England.

Collating these figures with an earlier NTU study of hand car washes in Leicester and Nottingham (which found wage theft to be endemic at all sites), and other studies and interviews funded by the Home Office Modern Slavery Prevention Fund, NTU estimates that 90 per cent of hand car washes are operating illegally.

Rich Pickford, from NTU, said: “When the Responsible Car Wash Scheme attempted to introduce a code of practice, hardly any hand car washes met all the criteria. The entire sector is endemically unlawful and non-compliant.

“Our work through the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Prevention Fund also highlighted the scale of non-compliance and unlawful practice across three local authorities in the UK.”

The director of the Clewer Initiative, Caroline Virgo, said: “Working with WIP researchers has confirmed our suspicions about modern slavery, and provides additional weight to our belief that we must tackle modern slavery across the UK.”

She continued: “Statutory organisations are already stretched, and yet our data proves no community is immune from modern slavery. The risk is everywhere. We need many more consumers to use the Safe Car Wash App and submit their reports, so we can provide more detailed insight to the police and GLAA.

To mark the anniversary, the Initiative is urging more people to download the app and submit reports whenever they visit a hand car wash: “We are reliant on the general public to be our eyes and ears and drive out exploitation across the sector.”

The app has been downloaded 40,000 times since 2018. Reports that score above the threshold of concern for modern slavery and exploitation are referred to the Modern Slavery Helpline, and passed on to the police where appropriate.


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