By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A government scheme to tackle labour abuses and modern slavery at Britain's hand car washes was announced on Monday, following concerns that Eastern European workers are being exploited and enslaved at thousands of unregulated sites across the country.
The Responsible Car Wash Scheme will recognise businesses that operate legally, hire and treat their employees fairly, and protect the environment, according to police, industry players and government agencies which together developed the initiative.
Thousands of workers in Britain's car washes are estimated to be slaves - mostly men lured from Eastern Europe then trapped in debt bondage, forced to work in unsafe conditions, stripped of their documents and subjected to threats, abuse and violence.
"We have seen numerous problems across this industry, from modern day slavery, debt bondage, failure to pay proper wages," said Darryl Dixon, head of strategy at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Britain's anti-slavery body.
"This scheme is a big step forward to address these issues."
Workers at most of the about 20,000 hand car washes in Britain are victims of exploitation, according to a report last week by modern slavery experts from Nottingham University and the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
The lack of a system to register and license such firms has allowed them to flourish with little oversight, the report said.
Police and state officials are ramping up investigations but say the crime is hard to crack with countless car washes thought to be flouting laws, most victims too scared to speak out, and the cash-squeezed British public seeking ever cheaper services.
"Victims do not always recognise or accept themselves as such ... this can make prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act extremely difficult," Phil Brewer, head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-slavery unit, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Car washes are the top concern for people who call Britain's anti-slavery helpline, with at least 2,000 suspected victims identified in nearly two years, according to the charity Unseen.
Yet encouraging the public to spot slavery at car washes is only relevant in a few cases where abuse is visible, said Caroline Robinson, head of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).
"Instead of placing the focus on shoppers to spot slavery, the government must properly fund the authorities whose job it is to protect our workforce," the charity's director added.
The car wash scheme, which is also being supported by Unseen and five major supermarkets, is being piloted next month and will see participating sites verified by audits and spot-checks.
At least 136,000 modern slaves reside in Britain, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - 10 times the latest government estimate put forward in 2013.
Hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain said in July it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, help victims, or drive companies to spot and stop forced labour. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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