Links between organised crime and hand car wash outlets in West Surrey have been targeted in operations by police and other agencies at six locations.
The initiative, Operation Arras, is the first one of its kind in Surrey and aimed to target the problems of human trafficking, servitude, money laundering and unsafe practices; all of which are associated with organised crime which is known to have links with hand car wash centres nationally.
The operation on Friday, 21 November saw staff from Home Office Immigration Enforcement, National Crime Agency (NCA), Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), local councils and Surrey Police join forces in an intelligence gathering and public protection initiative.
The clampdown focused on establishing the status of workers at the locations, to see if any were victims of human trafficking or were being exploited, through slavery, poor living conditions or low and non-existent wages. Enquiries were undertaken to find out if the establishments were operating safely and legally and not as a ‘smoke screen’ for associated criminal activities.
As a result of the checks, which saw officers from the different agencies working together, four people were arrested and detained for immigration offences. A further three people have been placed on immigration bail pending further enquiries.
Paul Smith, head of the Thames Valley and Surrey Home Office Immigration Enforcement team, said: “We are determined to tackle all forms of illegal working across Surrey and this operation shows that we will not ease up in combating immigration crime.
“We work closely with our partners at Surrey Police, the NCA and HMRC to clamp down on illegal working and the criminality often associated with it.
“Illegal working is not a victimless crime. It cheats the taxpayer, undercuts honest employers and exploits some of society’s most vulnerable people. It also starves legitimate job hunters of employment opportunities.”
Surrey Police chief inspector Dave Mason said: “Many hand car washes are legitimately run, and I would like to thank those car wash operators who co-operated with us today. Those sites that aren’t operated legally can have a significant impact on our communities and it is our duty to keep people safe from harm.
Today’s activity provided an opportunity for car wash employees to speak safely and confidentially to police and other enforcement agencies regarding their status and working conditions. We had the opportunity to discover exactly what premises are being used for and can take appropriate action to ensure legitimate trading is taking place.
“The raids today are just the beginning of an ongoing plan to tackle crimes linked to hand car washes and keep our communities safe. I would appeal to members of the public to inform us if they have any concerns about such sites – whether those concerns are related to immigration, exploitation of individuals, minimum wage or the hidden economy.
“If you get your car washed at one of these sites and the price seems too good to be true, ask yourself what’s the real cost and is anyone being exploited in the process?”
HMRC spokesperson Michelle Potts said: “Illegal traders should note that during these joint operations, HMRC focus on catching those people who think they can evade their tax responsibilities, who fail to pay the right duty due on fuel or who pay workers below the national minimum wage. The actions of these businesses mean they often have an unfair advantage over honest businesses. If you have any information about an individual or business involved in this type of illegal activity, please call the Customs Hotline number on 0800 595000 or report it online at www.hmrc.gov.uk/reportingfraud/online.htm."
“Anyone who believes they are not being paid the national minimum wage can call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline, in confidence, on 0800 917 2368.”
Liam Vernon, head of the NCA’s UK Human Trafficking Centre, said: “Modern Slavery is a crime that exploits the most vulnerable people in our society, often in the form of labour exploitation. The most recent assessment on the scale of human trafficking, published by the National Crime Agency in September, identified a 328% increase in reporting of exploitation associated with car washes over the previous year, and the NCA is committed to working with partners across law enforcement to pursue the criminals involved in this vile trade in human misery.”
Cllr Richard Billington, lead councillor for Community Safety and Health at Guildford Borough Council, welcomed the operation and said: “The aim of the activity was to make sure people at these hand car wash sites are working legally and to make sure the premises were safe. It also serves to highlight the possible different ways in which vulnerable people can be exploited.”