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The Slaves on our Streets

The Slaves on our Streets

In towns and cities across the country, the sight of people cleaning cars in disused petrol stations, supermarkets and shopping centres is now a common scene. But have you ever stopped and thought about whether the person polishing your bumper is being treated fairly? Across the UK, cheap hand car washes are being exposed as hives of modern slavery, with workers criminally exploited through low pay, threats of violence and unsafe environments. No reliable data currently exists to measure the scale of the problem, but a new smartphone app is now set to provide a powerful tool in the fight against modern slavery. 

The UK government estimates that there are 13,000 slaves in the UK today, with construction, nail bars and car washes among the sectors where exploitation and abuse of workers is widespread.
It’s thought there are more than 18,000 hand car washes on Britain’s high streets. While many run as legitimate businesses, some exploit, force and threaten workers. Although law enforcement agencies are clear that this problem exists, there is a lack of information on just how widespread this issue is. Now, drivers are being urged to join a public intelligence-gathering effort by reporting signs of modern slavery through the new app. 

Launched by The Clewer Initiative and the Santa Marta Group (the Church of England and the Catholic Church’s respective anti-slavery campaigns), the Safe Car Wash App is backed by anti-slavery campaigners, law enforcement agencies and local councils. 

Users can open the app at a hand car wash and pinpoint their exact location using GPS. The app will then ask users to spot the possible signs of slavery – ranging from practical details, such as whether workers have suitable protective clothing like gloves and boots, to behavioural clues, such as whether they appear fearful. Anonymised data will be shared with the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), with users directed to the Modern Slavery Helpline if their answers indicate a high likelihood of slavery. 

Although they might not be aware of it, people are faced with modern slavery in their everyday lives.
The Rights Lab, the University’s world-leading research platform to end modern slavery, has played a crucial role in the development of the Safe Car Wash App. The software was tested by Rights Lab researchers Dr Alexander Trautrims and Dr Thomas Chesney.

To generate an accurate picture of the scale of the problem, the data gathered from the app will be analysed over a six-month period at the Rights Lab, with experts reporting back in early 2019. 

“Car washes are completely unregulated territory,” said Professor Zoe Trodd, Director of the Rights Lab. “We don’t know how big the sector is, how many hand car washes operate or how many persons are registered to work in them. This citizen engagement in data collection is a powerful technique with potential for mapping other vulnerable services such as nail bars.”

“Over the last few years we have learned more about the evil of modern slavery,” commented Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. “We have begun to understand how it is perpetrated in our communities in plain sight. Through the Safe Car Wash App we now have a chance to help tackle this scourge which is damaging so many people’s lives.” 

The Safe Car Wash App is available to download for free to Apple devices on the App Store and Android devices on Google Play