Slaves on our Streets: Anti-slavery teams swoop on London car washes after Independent exposé

Workers had described ‘leprosy-like’ injuries after using chemicals without any safety equipment

Eleanor Rose
Thursday 12 October 2017 16:21
One of the welfare visits to a car wash in east London
One of the welfare visits to a car wash in east London

A squad of anti-slavery enforcers swooped on car washes in the capital in a major police response to The Independent and London Evening Standard’s special investigation into slavery.

Yesterday, The Independent exposed the growing horrors of Britain’s car washes, where young men reported being tricked and trapped, sleeping four to a bedroom, and subjected to injury.

It was reported that Sandu Laurentiu-Sava, a 40-year-old Romanian, died by electrocution while showering in squalid quarters attached to the car wash where he worked in Bethnal Green.

Others told The Independent of “leprosy-like” damage to their hands from using chemicals without basic safety gear.

Officers from the Met’s Modern Slavery and Kidnap Unit, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs launched a series of joint car-wash welfare visits after this publication urged authorities to put a stop to the scourge.

The Independent accompanied officials on visits to four hand car washes in east London to investigate signs of exploitation.

During the inspections, car wash staff told how they worked 12-hour days for as little as £3 an hour, revealing to officers that they “just work, eat and sleep – don’t go out – no time”.

They were seen washing cars in trainers and jeans, some of them not wearing rubber gloves – often a cause for alarm, according to slavery experts.

One Romanian worker, who asked not to be named, said he toiled gruelling hours in cold weather, and was constantly soaked-through.

“I work 12 hours a day, six days a week, for £40 a day. It’s very difficult,” he said, adding that he had neither a passport nor even a bank account.

“And if you think you stay with your feet in water, all day – your feet are wet. Even in winter, I am not wearing boots,” he said.

During the visits, officers also found a 17-year-old who said he’d fled slavery in his native Albania hoping for a better life in the UK. He told officers how he then wound up working 10 to 12-hour days in a car wash for low pay.

Chris Flint, investigator for the GLAA, said the multi-agency inspections triggered by The Independent’s campaign were crucial to identifying labour abuses from minimum-wage infractions to the extremes of coercion, threat and injury.

Although the men didn’t identify themselves as victims of slavery during the visits, officers saw “clear hidden-economy exploitation”, he said, adding: “It’s all about protecting those exploited workers – and this is a fantastic example of that. We should be doing this day in, day out. Joint working works.”

Authorities have admitted that prosecutions for trafficking and forced labour under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act are few compared with the drastic scale of the problem, which affects at least 13,000 people UK-wide.

Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions, revealed last month that 349 people were prosecuted in 2016 for modern slavery offences, but said this was “the tip of the iceberg”.

Detective Chief Inspector Phil Brewer, who heads the 80-strong Modern Slavery and Kidnap Unit, explained that police efforts to fight slavery in car washes are fraught because victims are scared and often do not see themselves as slaves.

He said that so short was the window of opportunity to convince them to speak out that he felt at times “like a second-hand car salesman”.

Victims are told by traffickers that if they speak to police, they could be prosecuted for immigration offences or deported. They also fear losing what little they earn.

“They’ve got family back home heavily reliant on them sending that £3 an hour back so they can survive. That is the real dilemma,” said DCI Brewer.

Not all exploitation involves extremes of overt threats or control, and some car washers claim they’re happy to work for £3 an hour – though it may be they cannot realistically leave since they have no money, papers, or even bank account.

Health and safety, immigration and national wage laws are all part of the toolkit to tackle cases where workers are silent but officers have the “niggling feeling” that something is wrong, said DCI Brewer.

He called on slaves to come forward even if they are worried about immigration infractions.

“They will be dealt with as victims. If they have a genuine claim of modern slavery they will be dealt with sympathetically, without a doubt,” he said.

More welfare visits are planned as the Met seeks to tackle “vulnerable premises” such as car washes.

A new monthly meeting at Scotland Yard has also been launched between agencies that deal with modern slavery to share intelligence and combine efforts.

***

Independent readers can help combat exploitative and abusive car washes in London by following a few simple guidelines. Awareness is key.

Observe the conditions of the car wash and its employees.

Do the workers look happy? Do they seem very tired or nervous, or are they speaking a different language from other employees?

Is a boss shouting at them? Do they seem scared of him/her?

Can you see adequate rest and toilet facilities?

Are they wearing gloves and using proper equipment?

Does the service seem suspiciously cheap given the number of employees and time taken?

Does the car wash have clear, permanent signage, or does it appear to have been set up temporarily?

If possible, avoid paying cash. Many car washes accept credit cards, and tend to be more accountable.

If you see something suspicious, report it to the GLAA 0800 432 0804 or email intelligence@gla.gsi.gov.uk

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