It is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 hand car wash operations across the country, after the service sprang up over the last 15 years as a cheaper alternative to automatic car washes.
Although not all of these businesses break the law, it was found that there is a “widespread practice” of breaching labour laws and regulations in order to compete in an industry whose existence is driven by the ability to outperform competitors in terms of cost and convenience.
This race to the bottom has led to the exploitation of the most vulnerable workers, with hand car washes the most common employers reported to the Modern Slavery Helpline (accounting for 27% of all calls to the service), and a significant number of human trafficking victims saying they worked providing this service.
Poor conditions at hand car washes have led to at least one death, cases of trench foot, chemical burns, unsanitary and overcrowded employer-provided living accommodation (including shared mattresses on the floor and insufficient food), extremely low or no wages, verbal abuse and humiliation, workers forced to conduct their duties in wet clothing and shoes, a lack of protective equipment, long working hours with few breaks, and excessive control over workers such as employers withholding passports and identification documents, threats of deportation, threats (and acts) of physical violence, and debt bondage.
The Health and Safety Executive has taken enforcement action against 103 hand car washes over the last three years, including 45 businesses required to immediately cease trading and 27 given a period of time to make improvements. However, no employer in the sector has been prosecuted. Despite widespread payment of illegally low wages, there have also only been a handful of prosecutions for hand car washes breaking National Minimum Wage law.
“We were astonished and dismayed to discover that there have only been 14 minimum wage prosecutions since 1999. The government must target the sector and prosecute exploitative employers. This would send a strong signal that worker exploitation has no place in the UK,” Chair of the Committee, Mary Creagh, said, calling on both local and central government to work with police to tackle the issue.
The Committee also criticised the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for paying too little attention to the involvement of small businesses in forced labour, and for failing to implement local enforcement of anti-slavery policy.
It also pointed to evidence that the hand car wash issue is much worse in the UK than in other northern European countries, and that this appears to be due to better enforcement of the law in those nations.