Hand car washes can amount to “modern slavery in plain sight” and should be licenced, according to a government Select Committee.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s investigation into working practices at hand car washes (HCW) has been told they play host to a “spectrum of exploitation”. Concerns include bosses not paying staff the minimum wage, workers at risk of trench foot and chemical burns, and untreated wash water having “toxic effects” on plant and animal life.

The Committee identified research that found out of 450 people who had been trafficked into the UK, 40 were found to be working in hand car washes, and found “the failure of authorities to enforce the law” was a major problem related to workers’ treatment at HCWs.

The MPS also recommended the Environment Agency remind supermarkets and local authorities that HCWs should have “interceptors” installed to trap chemicals in water runoff, just as petrol stations are required to do. The Committee heard evidence that “many supermarket car parks where hand car washes are located will not have the correct drainage connections or interceptors”

Earlier this year, the car wash industry launched a Responsible Car Wash Scheme to tackle modern slavery and non-compliance with regulations, while also protecting consumers.

Businesses that sign up to the service – which will provide guidance to help them operate within the confines of the law – will be able to display a Reasonable Car Wash Operator logo, allowing them to be recognised by consumers as looking after their workers, trading legally, adhering to environmental regulations and taking care of their customers’ vehicles.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations take this scheme one step further, though, calling for the Government to set up a trial licensing scheme to tackle the “widespread and flagrant rule breaking” across the industry. The Responsible Car Wash Scheme welcomed the Committee’s recommendations, saying “It’s important that we promote and support sites that are operating compliantly.”

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The Scheme – which will be piloted across the Midlands – is the product of collaboration between a number of Government bodies, including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the Downstream Fuel Association and the Health and Safety Executive. Anti-slavery charity Unseen has also been involved with the project.

The Car Wash Advisory Services estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 hand car washes in the UK, with issues such as modern day slavery, health and safety breaches, chemical damage to the environment and tax dodging occurring at roughly 8,000 of them.

One of the key cases that brought these concerns to the Government’s attention was the death of a Romanian worker in 2017, who was electrocuted while taking a shower at lodgings adjacent to the east London car wash he was employed at.

The GLAA’s Darryl Dixon commented: “We have seen numerous problems across this industry – from modern day slavery, debt bondage and failure to pay proper wages, to workers not being provided with any appropriate protective equipment.

“Whilst enforcement is crucial, education is also essential to both operators – so they can ensure they operate legally – and consumers – so they can make the simple decision of using a legal operator or not. This Scheme is a big step forward in addressing these issues.”

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