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FEATURE-Modern slavery seeps through murky world of Britain's car washes

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 November 2017 09:00 GMT

Thousands of workers in hand car washes across Britain are believed to be modern slaves

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Nov 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tricked into washing cars in London for 12 hours a day without pay and treated like a slave, Bogdan quit after a week - hoping to find a better job after his move to Britain from Romania.

His hopes were short-lived. That night, three men visited the room he had rented from the car wash owners and ordered him to open a string of bank accounts using fake identity documents.

"They raised their voices, and were aggressive," the 31-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, declining to give his real name out of fear of retribution by his enslavers.

"I was very scared, and emotional, so I accepted it."

Thousands of workers in hand car washes across Britain are believed to be modern slaves - mostly men lured from Eastern European countries such as Albania and Bulgaria with promises of paid work, housing and better job opportunities in the future.

Yet many end up trapped in debt bondage, forced to live and work in squalid and unsafe conditions, stripped of their documents and subjected to threats, abuse and violence.

Some slaves, such as Bogdan, are coerced to commit crimes - afraid for their lives and for their families if they refuse.

At least 13,000 people across the country are estimated by the government to be living in modern slavery but police say that the true figure is likely to be in the tens of thousands.

While forced labour is rife among Britain's building sites, nail bars, factories and farms, car wash slavery is rocketing with unregulated sites sprouting up rapidly nationwide, according to the country's anti-slavery agency and chief.

Police are ramping up investigations but say the crime is tough to crack with 20,000 car washes believed to be flouting laws, most victims too scared to speak out, and the increasingly cash-squeezed British public hunting for ever cheaper services.

"This is modern slavery on an industrial scale," said Lysbeth Ford of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Britain's anti-slavery body. "The government and the police are not yet aware of the extent of car wash slavery".

"It has exploded because workers are being underpaid or not paid at all - creating an environment ripe for exploitation."


In several London car washes visited by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, many employees were not wearing protective clothing while most were unwilling to talk about their pay or living conditions, and pointed to their bosses when questioned further.

While such workers are in plain sight - not hidden away like slaves in brothels, houses, and cannabis farms - their fear and reluctance to speak out makes it difficult to identify and help victims, said global anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice.

"When you visit a car wash and ask workers about their situation, they parrot the same rehearsed line about being paid the minimum wage and not working more than 40 hours each week," said Lauren Batty, who works for the group in northern England.

When police suspect slavery at a car wash, they seek out all possible intelligence - from analysis of its finances to covert surveillance - before raiding a site in the hope of persuading workers to come forward, or securing a victimless prosecution.

If officers fail to get victims on board, and quickly, they often disappear and end up being re-trafficked, said detective sergeant Dan Parkinson of the police's anti-slavery unit.

"It's hard to get victims to engage," he said. "They may have negative perceptions of the police, or fear deportation."

"Many people don't even consider themselves victims because 1 pound ($1.30) an hour is better than earning nothing at home."

About a tenth of 400 live police operations tackling slavery in Britain involve car washes, up from 5 percent of nearly 200 at the end of last year, according to the latest police figures.

While the crime is ever-evolving in Britain, the 2015 Modern Slavery Act gave police new powers to restrict the movements and actions of suspected traffickers before and during operations, and imposed the threat of life imprisonment for slave masters.

Such measures are crucial to combat slavery and other crimes in car washes, where various offences - from drug trafficking to benefit fraud - often intersect, the police's Parkinson said.

"These are cash businesses, easy to run and hide criminality - ideal for exploiting people while generating high turnover."


The public also have a role to play - by refusing to use car washes offering rock-bottom prices and reporting possible cases of exploitation and signs of slavery - campaigners say.

Many London car washes provide a full valet for 30 pounds ($40), compared to 100 pounds ($130) just a few years ago.

Yet the death of a Romanian worker in 2015 - electrocuted in the shower of the derelict London flat owned by his boss - was a "wake-up call" about the harsh reality, and dangers, facing many car wash staff, said Britain's anti-slavery tsar, Kevin Hyland.

"Car washes have operated with impunity and popped up rapidly as they have gone unchallenged for so long," he said. "But this is in the public eye ... we all need to do more."

And data from a British anti-slavery helpline, run by the charity Unseen, suggests the public are playing their part.

Of 112 cases of potential car wash slavery recorded between October 2016 and August this year and referred on to the authorities and charities - involving about 700 possible victims - two-thirds were reported by the public, Unseen said.

"It is so important to get the public understanding what they are looking at," said Justine Currell, executive director of Unseen. "If it appears too good to be true, it probably is."

But for most slaves in Britain, the idea of relying on anyone - whether police or public - is fanciful and risky.

While Bogdan is now free, having escaped his enslavers and gone to the police in 2015 after they got drunk one night and left the fake identity documents lying around, he recalled how fear and uncertainty trapped him in slavery for weeks on end.

"Before that night, I didn't run away, I couldn't run away, because I didn't think I would ever be believed," he said.

($1 = 0.7618 pounds) (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; 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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