Stopping modern slavery in hand car washes

In June we launched our Safe Car Wash App, helping the general public to report hand car washes that might be exploiting people. But what happens next?

This week we spoke to DS Gareth Smethem who, as part of his role with Derbyshire Constabulary, routinely visits hand car washes that they suspect may be using forced labour. We asked him how the police in his area respond to modern slavery in hand car washes, and what he thinks the general public could do to make a difference. 

Hi Gareth, how long have you and your team been looking at modern slavery?

People don’t have to have chains in order to be a victim of exploitation

We had an investigation in 2012-2013 around a couple of organised crime groups exploiting people in labour exploitation, then we did a little bit of work around car washes. But it wasn’t till 2015 when [the Modern Slavery Act 2015] started coming in that people started looking at it differently and understanding that people don’t have to have chains in order to be a victim of exploitation. So then in 2016 we put a proposal together to set up an engagement team to go out. The Terms of Reference for that team was to go out and try and find victims of modern slavery in high risk areas such as car washes.

So how do you approach a hand car wash that you think might be using forced labour?

When the team formed, we went out and did a couple of car washes by ourselves and the whole thing didn’t seem right. We were going out, engaging with people, they’d speak to us but wouldn’t come forward... So quite early on we decided that it was important to involve all the partnership agencies, and make sure we could use their powers in order to try and disrupt their criminality. So we go in with other agencies: Health and Safety, HMRC, DWP, local councils. And if there’s any issues, those agencies then take the lead and deal with it that way. If people aren’t coming forward to say they’re a victim, by working together as a partnership, we’re still improving the conditions that they then have to work in. And by doing that we then get to build a rapport with them.

What kinds of issues do you generally see in hand car washes?

Normally what we’ll see is issues with electricity. They run wire from one building to another and then power all the equipment off of that. We had one where the wire was running under a corrugated iron fence, and the workers were leaning against that fence, and because they were leaning against it, it had started breaking the protective casing around the wire, and potentially at some point it would have gone through the coating and made the entire fence live that they were leaning up against.

I’ve been to a couple of car washes where, when we went into them, the building that somebody was living in was disgusting, we shut it down, and within two weeks it had completely changed.

I’ve been to a couple of car washes where, when we went into them, the building that somebody was living in was disgusting, we shut it down, and within two weeks it had completely changed. Where they were living had been kitted out, and they were now getting paid the minimum wage. So they’re happy because all they want to do is come here and work.


Do you often come across people who say that they are victims?

It’s very rare that you’re going to get someone come forward as a victim the first time you visit a car wash. It’ll take 3 or 4 visits to start talking to them, and getting into their story, and them trusting you. Maybe from their previous experiences in other countries they don’t find the police trustworthy, so you have that barrier to break down.

Do you think this approach has made a difference to hand car washes in your area?

It think it’s made the ones that we have got and the ones that we’ve visited stand up and improve the conditions and made them get more legitimate. And the ones that won’t, they’ll just get visited again and get shut down and at some point they’ll realise that it will cost them more to not comply than it would be to comply.

What do you think would change the situation with hand car washes?

Probably, people’s attitude towards hand car washes. We visited a couple of car washes recently, one of them was only charging £3 and there were more people going to that. When you try and explain that they can’t legitimately wash a car without something being cut, whether that’s the safety of the workers, of their wages, people don’t seem to care. All you get is ‘well they do a good job and I’m happy’ rather than questioning that they’re creating the market, because they go to these people they’re creating the demand. So you see these car washes being popped up everywhere and then trying to undercut each other and something has to give. Whether it’s people not being paid the minimum wage, or the safety of the victim, there’s always going to be a loser and the majority of the time it’s the workers.

Find out more about the Safe Car Wash App here, and if you would like to hear more about the police approach to modern slavery in Derbyshire you can follow DS Gareth’s team on twitter, they are @DerbysMDS_HT.