A crackdown on slavery and other criminal activity harboured by hand car washes in Northern Ireland is being led by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and has resulted in some sites being closed down.

Detective inspector Mark Bell from PSNI’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) said: “I am aware of some concerns that exist around car washes and when we receive information of this nature, we take it extremely seriously.

“Labour exploitation, like all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking, often goes undetected and unreported as victims are often controlled through fear and violence. This is why we have carried out 48 proactive operations aimed at identifying potential victims at hand car washes in Northern Ireland since the establishment of the MSHTU in 2015.

“While we have spoken to 212 workers, to date only six potential victims of labour exploitation have been recovered from hand car washes. When we speak to the workers, away from their managers or the owners, the vast majority state that they are not working under duress and there is no evidence of them being controlled or held against their will. Many indicate that they are content with their pay and conditions as they feel it is still more than they would otherwise have earned at home.

“There is no doubt that many of these hand car washes are being run as legitimate businesses, working ethically and responsibly and doing their best to comply with all the regulations. However, in some of these hand car washes, workers have told us they are being paid between £10 and £60 per day for carrying out this work in the cold. In these cases, it is clear that the owners are taking advantage of the workers’ situation and their lack of knowledge of the law and their entitlements. By adopting a multi-agency approach to the issue, a wide range of powers can be utilised by all of the relevant agencies to best protect the worker and enforce any employment or safety legislation that is breached.

“While few potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking have been recovered from hand car washes, this does not mean that we are complacent. We will continue to carry out proactive operations, as they give us the opportunity to assess if any workers are potential victims of trafficking and conduct follow up visits at their homes to check on them again and look at their living conditions, with their consent.

“The operations also give us an opportunity to supply the workers with our contact details should they require further assistance in the future and advice leaflets in their own language that educates them about their entitlements. Furthermore, the operations continue to be a valuable tool in disrupting potential criminal operations. Partners have carried out investigations in relation to tax evasion, benefit fraud and health and safety issues. As a result of some of these investigations, car washes have been closed down or the owners no longer operate in Northern Ireland.”