As customers drive their newly gleaming vehicles away from the Shiny Car Wash in Carlisle, north-west England, a notice gives a clue about the struggle under way to clean up a sector notorious for labour abuses. The sign, put up by owner Sitar Ali, warns customers that prices — currently £7 for small cars and £10 for big ones — will be going up.
Mr Ali, a Kurd born in Syria but now a UK citizen, is facing more than rising costs. After having been charged in October with offences including conspiracy to launder money, people-trafficking and modern slavery relating to various sites in 2016 and 2017 — all of which he denies — he is focused on showing his business follows the rules.
He is seeking to ensure not only that he gives his workers the minimum wage, paid holidays and breaks but that he meticulously documents having done so. He also has to find the fees for membership of the Car Wash Advisory Service, a company that inspects operators and certifies that the rights of staff are being respected and that owners are obeying health, safety and environmental regulations.
His efforts typify how some of the UK’s estimated 17,000 hand car washes are responding to widespread concern about how the sector operates. Both the privately run CWAS and the Responsible Car Wash Scheme, operated by petrol retailers’ group the Downstream Fuel Association, are launching voluntary schemes to audit sites in the hope that it will drive up standards. The RCWS was devised in conjunction with the Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority, the labour standards enforcer.
The schemes could provide a template for other sectors associated with labour abuse to show consumers that they are seeking to improve.
At Shiny Car Wash pictures of the staff — most of whom are from Romania — and a CWAS code of conduct are pinned to a board in the workers’ break room. “I hope they’re going to help me to go through all the paperwork, to be how it should,” Mr Ali said of CWAS. If the scheme is satisfied within 120 days, he will receive a Wash Mark, the organisation’s seal of approval.
Yet there are questions about whether voluntary, industry-led schemes can ever clean up the sectors of the economy most prone to abusing workers.
David Metcalf, director of labour enforcement strategy, last year recommended pilot licensing schemes for hand car washes and nail bars — “sectors where there’s considerable abuse” — in selected areas, to see if they could reduce malpractice.
But Caroline Robinson, chief executive of the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said industry-led initiatives were not always independent enough of the businesses they were regulating. “The best option is for the state to lead on labour market enforcement and oversight, particularly where it’s with high-risk labour sites,” she said.
Even those who believe voluntary schemes are the best way to restore the reputation of troubled industries disagree over the most effective measures.
The RCWS has prioritised endorsing sites such as the Car Park Valeting wash outside a Morrisons supermarket in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. The site, owned by Watford-based group Car Park Valeting, was one of 30 hand car washes in the Midlands that the RCWS examined in its first site audit programme this year.
Tonin Marku, franchisee for the Leamington Spa site, said his five workers were paid £8.50 an hour, above the £8.21 an hour minimum wage. One employee, Igor Seremet, from Moldova, said the site was the best of five car washes where he had worked in England — and a stark contrast with the worst. “The conditions were very bad over there . . . very low money,” he said.
Darryl Dixon, director of strategy at the labour standards authority, said RCWS’s work with the largest operators and most reputable landlords would “segment the market” by making clear there was no labour abuse at certified sites. “We can then deploy our resources more effectively to tackle the most serious non-compliance and exploitation,” he said.
But Dawn Frazer, managing director of the CWAS, said it was more important to work with small, independent operators. Lax inspections had given many such operators the impression that poor standards in the UK were “fair game”.
“We prefer the route of working with anybody who will work with us and holding their hand through the process of making them understand it’s not acceptable,” Ms Frazer said.
Sir David said the challenge remained that a “long tail” of unregulated facilities would remain outside even the most effective voluntary scheme.
This was reinforced by both Mr Ali and Mr Marku, who described other car washes operating near their sites that charged unsustainably low prices. Mr Marku said that while he charged £8 per vehicle, a site two miles away asked for just £5, raising questions about workers’ pay and health and safety on the site.
“It’s not right,” he said. “They don’t pay right.”