The dirty world of the hand car wash

Posted on Friday 29th June 2018

HCWs do not fall within the scope of the Modern Slavery Act.

Dr Akilah Jardine, a Research Associate in the Rights Lab, is carrying out research into hand car washes (HSWs). This type of set-up has attracted a lot of attention in the UK over recent months as investigations by law enforcement bodies have unearthed numerous labour, employment, health and safety, and environment violations.

Here, Dr Jardine talks about her experience of presenting evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on this murky world of labour exploitation.

“Here at the Rights Lab, we are currently conducting research on the nature and prevalence of labour exploitation in HCWs in the UK, in collaboration with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC).

As part of our research, we are focusing on; the extent to which labour exploitation meets the threshold for modern slavery and human trafficking, how different police authorities are affected and responding to this issue, the spread of HCWs in the UK compared to other countries with similar economies, and the ways in which labour exploitative practices in HCWs can best be tackled.

Recently, the Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into the social and environmental impact of HCWs across the UK. As lead researcher on labour exploitation in HCWs for the IASC research project, I submitted written evidence with Dr. Alexander Trautrims, and Dr. Alison Gardner, and subsequently was called to give oral evidence in parliament.

Naturally, I was anxious, yet thrilled to give evidence. Anxious because I have not given evidence before, but thrilled that the Committee was probing into a sector that has so far been able to flourish almost without any regulatory overview. It was a great opportunity for myself and others to have some direct policy impact.

Questions by the Committee centred around the signs of exploitation taking place in HCWs, the seriousness of labour exploitation and the extent to which it constitutes modern slavery, the effectiveness of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA), and whether the problem was as a result of lack of regulation or rather, inadequate enforcement of regulations.

Key points raised included: the difficulty in assessing the number of HCW operations in the UK, and moreover the number alleged to be exploiting workers, the lack of a system to register and license these operations leading to poor data visibility, the continuum of exploitation where worker abuse meet the threshold for modern slavery, and on the other hand, where workers do not see themselves as victims.

Unfortunately, HCWs do not fall within the scope of the Modern Slavery Act, as section 54 on transparency in supply chains, specifically applies to businesses with an annual turnover of £36 million or more.

Also, although the Act has raised awareness – there have been numerous law enforcement investigations into HCWs, and press coverage on this area- the unsuspecting general public continue to use unregulated and illegally run operations.

Nevertheless, Professor Ian Clark, from Nottingham Trent University, who I gave evidence alongside, acknowledged that MSA has had some effect, particularly on supermarkets – most notably Tesco – which has begun taking more proactive steps to regulate HCWs operating on its sites.

It was also questioned whether the negative social and environmental impact of HCWs is the result of lack of regulation, or lack of enforcement of regulation, and also, who should be responsible for ensuring compliance – whether it be the GLAA at national level or implemented at local level through Local Authorities.

Recently, the Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Sir David Metcalf, suggested that the GLAA extend its remit to pilot the licensing of HCWs and nail bars in specific locations.

It is questionable how workable such a scheme would be, given the fragmented nature of the sector. Nevertheless, I welcome such a pilot. Sectors such as HCWs, that are labour-intensive and utilise cheap, low-skill labour, are often susceptible to exploitative labour and employment practices, in addition to violating a host of other regulations.

Evidently, the regulation of HCWs requires a smart mix of preventative, educative and enforcement measures to drive compliance. The explosion of unregulated HCWs in the UK is indicative of inadequate enforcement of regulations and the normalisation of informal labour and employment practices.

Hand Car Washes are not illegitimate business activities, but unregulated operations not only threaten workers’ rights, but they are essentially undercutting an entire legitimate sector, including Automated Car Washes, and compliant HCWs, and much more should be done to clean up this sector.”

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