Dirty dealings: how the car wash became a hub for human trafficking

Modern-day slavery is rife in Britain's hand car washes.

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There is an idealised view of hand car washes. Thrifty teenagers earning some extra cash on Saturdays, to supplement their pocket money perhaps. Spit, polish and elbow grease - an honest way to make an honest buck. The reality is somewhat different.

“Everything bad you can think of with the British labour force is present at a car wash. Slavery, low wages, debt bondage, tax evasion, exploitation. It’s all there”.

That’s the assessment of Dawn Frazer, managing director of the Car Wash Advisory Service. She estimates that there are now 20,000 hand car washes in the UK. Around 1,000 of these are regulated.

“You only have to do a simple Google search to work out how big the problem is,” says Andrew Wallis of the anti-slavery charity Unseen.

It doesn't take long to find local write-ups of police raids and arrests. Only last week Manchester police raided 29 car washes, arresting four people. At one site, five survivors were taken away and placed with victim support services after being found sleeping on the floor of a caravan. A source inside Manchester police tells me that car washes are now second only to brothels as places of human trafficking.

“The easiest thing to prove with car washes is low pay,” says Frazer. “Sit outside a car wash for a few hours and work out how many cars are going in and how many people are washing those cars. You’ll realise quite quickly that they simply can’t be paying the minimum wage".

The price of a car wash can be incredibly low, argues Wallis. “Go back a few years and if you wanted to get your car fully valeted it would cost £100. You can do it from £30 now. It’s great, as long as you’re happy to turn a blind eye to who’s doing it”.

For Frazer the problem is clear. “There are a few car washes that employ British workers but a vast majority of hand car washes employ newly arrived immigrants. This is how some owners are able to offer such low prices, by taking advantage of vulnerable people.”

The tales that Wallis and Frazer relay are grimly similar: People who have been trafficked into Britain. Suddenly they are told that their accommodation, or flight, costs more than expected. They are asked to work to pay their debts, but the work never covers the arrears.

It is modern slavery, and it is modern slavery on a potentially industrial scale. Scott Mackechnie is Detective Chief Inspector for Hampshire police. He’s been spearheading attempts to tackle slavery in the county. Last year, a raid at a car wash found 11 survivors. Some of the men were sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a storage container. They eventually told the police that they were working 12-14 hour days, seven days a week.

“That’s the reality. If you go to a car wash and get your car cleaned, you don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes . . . It’s hidden below the surface.

“You’ve got to look for a number of signs. First, have the employees got basic documentation? Do they have NI numbers? Where do they live? What breaks are they being given?”

Part of the problem is that often the victims themselves are working illegally in the UK. It makes them naturally distrustful of the police.

“We have a campaign to get recruits from not just BME communities, but also eastern European police officers,” says Mackechnie. “When we go in [to a car wash] it's important that we build a rapport with the victims. In the raid last year we had a police officer who spoke Romanian”.

The approach taken by police forces is varied. Conscious of the danger of pushing victims below the surface, some forces work soft-peddling tactics, educating employers on workers’ rights for example. It doesn’t always work.

A leaflet in Romanian handed out by Hampshire police to people working at car washes.

“Sometimes a more proactive approach can be more effective,” says Mackechnie. “Forceful activity, visiting premises, arresting the controllers. Sometimes you want the workers to see it physically with their own eyes.”

Of course, not all hand car washes should be scorned. Barham Pallani manages a car wash in south London. He’s proud to show off folders of paperwork and accreditation. The staff wear protective clothing (by no means a given) and are paid the minimum wage. But he says it’s increasingly hard to compete with unregulated sites.

“I came from Kurdistan to the UK in 2009 and our prices haven’t changed since then. I know other car washes that pay their workers £40 a day. Maximum £50. For 10 or 11 hour days. That’s not minimum wage.”

Barham Pallani, who runs an accredited car wash, finds it hard to compete with unregulated car washes.

Pallani's car wash, which is regulated.

The level playing field in which businesses compete simply isn’t present in the car wash industry. There are now so many unregulated car washes that it is becoming difficult to survive and play by the rules.

It’s easy to blame authorities for not being more hands-on, for not waking up to the extent of the problem. But the focus must also turn to the people who use car washes, who are mostly ignorant of the problems.

“If the employees aren’t wearing protective clothing. If the price is ludicrously cheap. If there are no signs of certification then you have a duty to think twice before parting with your cash,” Says Frazer.

She has a point. You could be inadvertently propping up the modern day slave trade. 

This article appears in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe - test