In the last 15 years, thousands of cheap hand car washes have sprung up across the UK on car parks and disused forecourts, often using migrant labour. Faced with this competition the number of automatic car washes on petrol forecourts has dropped by over 1,100 in the decade up to 2016 and hand car washes now make up the bulk of the vehicle washing market. Hand car washes compete predominantly on costs and convenience of access and this has led to widespread practices of undercutting labour standards and other regulation. We were told that the majority of hand car washes may have some illegality around them, but the regulatory system that is supposed to deal with this is not currently fit for purpose.
We were told that a ‘spectrum of exploitation’ is taking place at hand car washes, from non-payment of the minimum wage or holiday pay, to serious cases of debt bondage. Research suggests that hand car washes are linked to trafficking into and within the UK for labour exploitation. This is modern slavery in plain sight on Britain’s streets. Over the last three years the growth of the hand car wash industry has resulted in increasing numbers of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and immigration inspections, focusing on serious health and safety risks and the possibility of labour exploitation. We heard some shocking cases of health and safety violations, tragically leading to the death of a worker in linked accommodation, and cases of trench foot and chemical burns amongst workers resulting from prolonged exposure to water and cleaning agents. In some cases, hand car washes are charging less than £5 per vehicle, despite employing large numbers of workers. Such low prices indicate that labour abuses, such as non-payment of the minimum wage, are occurring.
There are also concerns that some hand car washes are allowing their waste water to flow directly into surface water drains or seep into the ground. While this is not the most prevalent source of water pollution, where drains discharge wash water directly into water courses on a concentrated basis, it can damage water quality and kill animals and plants in large numbers in streams and rivers. There are a range of potentially toxic substances within wash water, including acids, oils and phosphates which can suffocate water courses by encouraging the growth of algae. If the UK is to meet its water quality targets in the 25 Year Environment Plan there needs to be efforts to deal with urban and agricultural sources of water pollution.
Risk prioritisation and a lack of inspections by the Environment Agency and water companies should not translate into a licence to pollute for hand car washes or any other businesses. Coordinating mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure water pollution is policed appropriately. We would like to see the Environment Agency write to the planning departments of Local Authorities across the UK to remind them that hand car washes should have interceptors installed and be connected to the foul sewer so that their wash water is treated rather than discharged directly into the environment. The Environment Agency should also write to major supermarkets to remind them that any hand car wash operating in their car parks needs to have appropriate drainage in place connecting to a foul sewer.
It is important to note that not all hand car washes violate labour, employment, health and safety and environmental regulations. There are legitimate regulated hand car wash brands as well as examples of good practice by independent outlets. In October, the Responsible Car Wash Scheme was launched to enable consumers to identify compliant operators. This was developed by the Downstream Fuel Association in conjunction with the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), five major supermarkets, the police, the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency, HMRC, anti-slavery charity Unseen, and national car wash operator Waves. Nevertheless, there remains exploitation and flagrant rule breaking taking place at potentially thousands of hand car washes in plain sight. The failures to enforce employment, planning and environmental regulations at some hand car washes must be rectified. The continued presence and use of non-compliant hand car washes normalises informal labour practices.
We are encouraged that the GLAA and Director of Labour Market Enforcement are stepping up their efforts to tackle labour exploitation at hand car washes. There should be more prosecutions for offences such as non-payment of the minimum wage to send out a stronger deterrence message that labour exploitation will not be tolerated in the UK. To make enforcement easier, the Government should trial a licensing scheme for hand car washes - that brings together all of the major compliance issues including environmental pollution in one more readily enforceable legal requirement. We also encourage HMRC to explore whether there is full and proper reporting of tax responsibilities and liabilities, whether under Minimum Wage legislation, PAYE, VAT, Business Rates and Corporation Tax.
Published: 15 November 2018