* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
When I sold my last car, I had it valeted before handing the keys over to the buyer. It cost me £120. That was ten years ago - a quick google tells me that's closer to £160 now. But today you can get your car valeted for £15 or £20 - the thought of paying 160 quid for it seems almost shocking. But what if that is the real price of this service, a service that takes a certain amount of time, labour and equipment for people that need a living wage?
The Environmental Audit Committee's Inquiry into Hand Car Washes recently heard stories of workers having trench foot caused by soaking wet feet all day, being forced to work long hours for little or no pay and reduced to hoovering coins out of cars to try live on, and unprotected exposure to substances such as hydrochloric acid. In one case, a man died after being electrocuted in the shower having been forced to live in a converted shipping container on-site.
Coupled with violence, threats and intimidation to prevent them from leaving their situations of exploitation, the conditions that many hand car wash workers are enduring amount to modern slavery.
Of course, not all of the estimated ten to twenty thousand hand car washes in the UK are exploiting their workers. But our data did reveal that the scale of the problem is huge. Car washes were the single biggest location of forced labour reported to the Helpline since we launched in October 2016, with 360 cases involving over 2000 potential victims of modern slavery, in every corner of the UK. And that is just the cases that have been reported to us.
Would I want to live or work in these conditions? Would I want my children to do so? No, of course not. Nor would you. Nor would anyone.
Yet we turn a blind eye to the cuts and burns on the unprotected skin of the withdrawn individuals washing our cars, saying to ourselves 'they want to work like this, it's better than what they can get at home', or as one woman said to me 'well, one person's slavery is another person's salvation'. We pay a fiver to the “boss” and we go off in our shiny clean car, without questioning the maths and wondering how anyone is making a living out of this.
Regulation and licensing may have a part to play in protecting workers, and the current Inquiry will examine how hand car washes are regulated and how the Government 'is meeting its commitments under the UN Sustainable Development Goals to reduce human exploitation'.
But fundamentally, we must change the way we think and value the goods and services we buy. We are addicted to cheap, whether that's the new top for £2.99 or the hand car wash that costs little more.
We must open our eyes to the true cost of things – if that cost is not paid by us, it will be paid by others with their health, rights, and freedom.