Addressing concerns that thousands of workers from Eastern Europe in hand car washes may be victims of exploitation and modern slavery, the British government has launched a scheme to counter these abuses. The Responsible Car Wash Scheme was announced Monday, and will recognize businesses which operate legally, hire and treat employees fairly, and protect the environment.
Policy, industry experts and government agencies collaborated on the initiative, which targets labor abuses in the approximately 20,000 unregulated hand car washes operating in the UK. The car wash scheme is also being supported by anti-slavery charity Unseen, and five major supermarkets. It will be piloted next month, with participating sites to be verified by audits and spot-checks.
According to Thomson Reuters Foundation:
Thousands of workers in Britain’s car washes are estimated to be slaves – mostly men lured from Eastern Europe then trapped in debt bondage, forced to work in unsafe conditions, stripped of their documents and subjected to threats, abuse and violence.
“We have seen numerous problems across this industry, from modern day slavery, debt bondage, failure to pay proper wages,” said Darryl Dixon, head of strategy at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Britain’s anti-slavery body.
“This scheme is a big step forward to address these issues.”
A report from Nottingham University and the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner released last week indicates that workers at most of the hand car washes in the UK are victims of exploitation. According to the report, because there is no system to register or license these businesses, they have flourished with little oversight, leading to widespread labor abuse.
Authorities are preparing to launch investigations, but say it is a difficult crime to address, due to the sheer volume of car washes involved, victims being afraid to speak up, and the demand for cheaper services driven by a cash-strapped British public.
“Victims do not always recognize or accept themselves as such … this can make prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act extremely difficult,” said Phil Brewer, head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-slavery unit.
While callers to Britain’s anti-slavery helpline frequently report concerns about car washes, public reporting is only relevant in the few cases where the abuse is clearly visible.
“Instead of placing the focus on shoppers to spot slavery, the government must properly fund the authorities whose job it is to protect our workforce,” said Caroline Robinson, head of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).