More than 90% of hand carwashes in UK employing workers illegally, study finds | UK news

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More than 90% of hand carwashes are likely to be employing workers illegally, without proper pay, records and first aid measures, three years after the government backed a voluntary scheme to tackle abuse in the sector.

Surprise inspections of carwashes in Leicester, Suffolk and Norfolk found only 7% had undertaken right-to-work checks, a legal obligation, or could prove that legal employment rights were being upheld.

The research was carried out by Nottingham Trent University in partnership with the government-backed Responsible Car Wash Scheme (RCWS) and the Home Office’s modern slavery prevention fund.

Only 6% of the carwashes had written contracts with workers while just 11% handed out payslips so that they could prove they were paying the legal minimum wage, holiday pay or sick pay. Less than half (41%) were registered companies, indicating most are not registered with the tax authorities.

The 36 businesses visited for the study this year were not warned about the inspections and were identified partly using a tool to locate neighbourhoods likely to host non-compliant businesses developed by the Nottingham Trent team as well as through police intelligence.

Teresa Sayers, the managing director of the RCWS, said she had visited more than 150 carwashes over the last few years and the study was “representative of the picture” across the UK. “This is endemic,” she said.

“It is quite shocking. Even though I have seen so many carwashes I was taken aback by how upfront these operators [in the study] were [about illegal practices] as they were so confident they were not going to be challenged.”

Sayers called on the government to implement local or regional licensing schemes for carwashes based on the RCWS’s code of practice, enforced by better sharing of data and objectives between oversight agencies which include HMRC, which is responsible for monitoring payment of the national minimum wage, and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which acts to protect vulnerable workers.

Sayers said only a “very, very small percentage” of the estimated 5,000 hand carwashes in the UK, which are thought to employ at least 15,000 people, had signed up to the voluntary good practice scheme she oversees, which was set up in 2018 in an effort to improve conditions in the sector.

She said: “Good operators say they want to operate fairly, but they can’t afford to do so as [they are] going to be undercut by the business across the road or around the corner.”

Sayers said oversight was fragmented and operators realised they were rarely at risk of inspection, with any action likely to be over quickly allowing them to return to poor practice.

Margaret Beels, the director of labour market enforcement, a government role created in 2017 to help coordinate oversight of treatment of workers in the UK, said the range of issues found within carwashes required “a joined up approach – including engagement with local authorities, since there can be environmental issues as well as employment concerns associated with hand carwashes”.

She said: “Evidence suggests that a broad range of noncompliance is prevalent in the hand carwash sector, mostly lower levels of labour market noncompliance and exploitation, though instances of modern slavery and human trafficking have been found. Underpayment of the minimum wage is a recurrent issue.”

The latest findings on continuing poor treatment of workers in carwashes come after the government in early 2019 rejected the idea of a national licensing scheme for the sector.

A parliamentary report by the environmental audit committee had called for a licensing scheme after it held an inquiry that heard evidence on exploitation of workers and environmental concerns, but the government rejected the idea in favour of more support for the then regional, voluntary RCWS.

A government spokesperson said: “Illegal working undercuts honest employers, puts vulnerable migrants at risk of exploitation, cheats legitimate job seekers out of employment and defrauds the public purse. Tackling this damaging crime is a key government priority, which is why we continue to work with law enforcement agencies to tackle illegal migration in all its forms.

“Our Nationality and Borders Act will ensure the system is fair to those in genuine need and firm on those who seek to abuse it.”

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