Today, Bubbles Car Wash in Bethnal Green is boarded up, its cheerful red-and-white painted sign fading, the workers long gone.
“When you saw them, they were smiling and happy, talking to the customers,” recalled a former regular, who asked not to be named.
Neighbours were therefore shocked when 40-year-old Romanian employee Sandu Laurentiu died suddenly, electrocuted in the shower in a rat-infested flat behind the business. The electricity metre had been bypassed to save money.
The tragedy lifted the lid on growing horrors taking place in London’s car wash industry. While some are legitimate businesses, many of the capital’s several hundred hand car washes are hotbeds of exploitation ranging from minimum-wage infringements to extremes of coercion and injury.
Car wash boss Shaip Nimani, 52, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in January. Nimani wasn’t tried on slavery charges, but Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland called the case “one of the worst examples of modern slavery to be seen on the high street”.
Authorities have since struggled to address escalating abuses in car washes across the country and in London.
The Evening Standard visited seven car washes across the city and saw obvious indicators of exploitation.
Hand-cleaning car wash services are offered for as little as £5 – often a sign that something is amiss, according to Dr Alexander Trautrims of Nottingham University, who has carried out extensive research and developed a computer model to help police identify slavery in car washes.
“What we figured out, and I think it’s also the gut feeling of people who use the car washes, is that it’s pretty much impossible to run that as a business and pay your staff sufficiently,” he said.
A fragmented industry with few national chains and a lack of regulatory oversight was partly to blame, he said.
“The staff often don’t even have rubber gloves. They put bare hands in buckets of cold water and chemicals,” he said, adding that one student who shook the hands of car wash workers rapidly developed a “red-raw” rash on his hands.
At all but one of the car washes visited by The Standard, jeans or tracksuits were worn with trainers and there was barely a protective glove in sight.
Meanwhile staff spoken to at two car washes – mostly Romanians and Albanians – confirmed they were being paid as little as £3 an hour. One said he had no passport or bank account and felt trapped.
London is also a hub through which slaves often pass on their way to exploitation up and down the country. Mihai, too frightened to use his real name, told The Standard how he came here from Romania by bus on the promise of a good job.
He then bussed to Carlisle where he worked 11-hour shifts with no breaks for £30 a day, paying £40 of that per week to the car wash boss to stay in a house with up to four men in a bedroom.
There was no gas for heating or hot water, so they were forced to queue in the kitchen to warm water on an electric stove to wash.
“It was similar to how people live in prisons in Romania,” Mihai said. Men he worked with claimed that they had been bought like cattle in Eastern Europe from traffickers, and that bosses held onto their IDs. He felt frightened and tricked. Meanwhile conditions at work were dangerous.
“Have you seen the movie Ben Hur, when one of the women had leprosy and her hands were destroyed? That’s how the guys’ hands were – burned by the shampoo and acid,” Mihai said.
Eight months and three police visits later, Mihai was rescued and taken to a safe house. Victim support charity the Medaille Trust helped him find a job paying above minimum wage. He knows he is lucky to have escaped a fate like Sandu Laurentiu’s.
Back at Bubbles Car Wash in Bethnal Green, neighbours called on police to act before another tragedy occurs.
“They have seen what’s happening here,” said one man, 29, who lives close by the now-shuttered car wash. “Nobody should be forced to work like that.”
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland said the spectrum of exploitation, from minimum wage and health and safety infractions to out-and-out threats and violence, was a grave matter.
“Poor and unsafe working conditions are crimes in themselves, as is not paying the minimum wage, and these can often be the first step to further exploitation and vulnerability,” he said.
He said government agencies including the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) must work with the public, who should come forward to report signs of slavery, to help bring the scourge to an end.
“Work should bring dignity, not abuse. There must be a concerted effort to ensure venues of exploitation, where workers’ rights are abused, no longer exist,” he said.
Detective Chief Inspector Phil Brewer, who heads the Met’s 80-strong Modern Slavery and Kidnap Unit, confirmed that car washes are a growing concern.
“If we can get out there and do more visits, it will be to the benefit of everyone. It hopefully gives people the confidence they need to come forward,” he said.
Until greater action helps shut down such abuse, car washes will remain notorious among London’s Romanian and Albanian communities.
Adverts are posted on social media and community websites by both car wash bosses and jobseekers – often youngsters desperate for work and unaware of the dangers awaiting.
One Albanian wrote a stark warning to another who was seeking car wash work on Facebook. “Get out of that zone, mate,” he wrote.
Expert comment by Bernard Hogan Howe, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner
A widespread problem
About 30 per cent of slavery in the UK is labour exploitation, and one of the biggest industries in which it is clear is car washes. Many of the workers are from other countries, paid low rates, and have large amounts taken out for overheads for living. They are left with very little.
For some, their liberty is restrained by their passport being taken away. They are worried about approaching the authorities because they don’t have the right to be here. Some of the people who run these businesses can be violent or intimidatory, and there’s the threat in the background that if there’s any doubt about a worker’s immigration status, it can be used to put pressure on them.
Public can spot signs
For customers, you will usually see that the numbers don’t add up. If it takes 10 people 15 minutes to wash a car for £5, it usually means there’s very low pay. What are the conditions? Do workers have decent break facilities and toilets? Do you see a high turnover of staff at the car wash, which might indicate that people are being moved around between sites?
The challenge for law enforcement
Policing in this area is difficult. Customers and workers in car washes rarely make complaints. So police and other agencies need to be proactive and seek out intelligence.
Meanwhile the Government must make clear that where someone is a victim of human trafficking, even if they have committed a minor offence, they will not be prosecuted.
We all have to think imaginatively, too, about where people can seek sanctuary. The Catholic Church and the Church of England work together with authorities to help victims come forward to their local priest. We need to keep building on these third parties.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in