We look at this growing industry where, amid the respected firms, there's plenty of shady outfits involved in modern-day slavery
24 March 2018

There are around 19,000 unregulated car wash sites in the UK, some involved in modern-day slavery where undocumented migrants work 12-hour days for as little as £25.

In response, an independent not-for-profit organisation has been launched with the aim of bringing together government agencies, car wash companies, workers, charities and the public to, in its words, “shape a car wash industry that will be fair and safe for all”.

Called the Sandu Foundation, it has been created in memory of Sandu Laurentiu-Sava, a Romanian car wash worker who, in 2015, was electrocuted while taking a shower at his home in Bethnal Green, east London. The electrical supply for his makeshift lodgings, attached to the car wash site, was wired to bypass the electricity meter. The accommodation was provided by Sandu’s boss, Shaip Nimani. At the Old Bailey in January 2017, Nimani pleaded guilty to manslaughter by gross negligence and was jailed for four years.

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The foundation created in Sandu’s memory is the brainchild of the Car Wash Advisory Service. It aims to promote best operating practices, in particular that employees are paid a fair wage and taxed appropriately, and that businesses operate legally and responsibly. Car washes that meet its standards are awarded its Washmark seal of approval.

“Things are still as bad if not worse out there,” says Dawn Frazer, managing director of CWAS. “People who work in many hand car washes are really suffering. We want to ensure they are treated fairly. The public can help by reporting their suspicions to the police.”

There are certainly car washes in my area that I suspect aren’t bastions of employee rights. I encountered some for this story, when I was either blanked by groups of uncomprehending cleaners or simply told to leave. I began to wonder if there might be a decent car wash an honest operator could aspire to...

I stumbled across Luv Your Car via the internet. It’s on Canvey Island, a place, incidentally, whose civic leaders, inspired by Catalonia’s bid for independence, are seeking autonomy from Castle Point Borough Council on the Essex mainland. They’re an independent bunch, those Canvey Islanders – as is Rick Plowman, founder and boss of Luv Your Car, a steam car wash.

“Best in class is not good enough. World class is where we want to be,” Plowman tells me when I visit. (He also says things like “you could copy this but it would lack the ‘us’ power”, “the key to retail is detail” and “most people in business are dead from the neck up”.)

However, the most interesting thing he says is: “We put compliance at the forefront of our business. We take all reasonable steps to ensure our staff’s documents are valid and that they’re clear to work. They all have passports, so I know who I’m employing. They’re paid above the minimum wage and taxed on PAYE, which is why, later this month, they will be moving into their own, good- quality rented accommodation not related to this business.”

So that’s his workers’ welfare taken care of. As for their working conditions, Luv Your Car operates from a clearly branded business unit in the corner of a Sainsbury’s car park. At either end of it are two ‘pods’, or rooms. One is for the cleaners, a place where they can relax and watch TV. The other is the customer reception office. So that all transactions are recorded and accounted for, customers are encouraged to pay by card rather than cash.

While they do their Sainsbury’s shop, any valuables in their car can be locked in one of 20 Luv Your Car safes. Customers take the safe key with them and are texted when their car is ready.

The large, covered cleaning area separating the two pods is clean, tidy and free of waste water. A steam clean uses just two litres of water and takes around 30 minutes. No chemicals are used. Luv Your Car’s cleaners – Mehdi Rostami, Martin Naskov and manager Navid Marzei, each identified by ID badges complete with their photos – use microfibre cloths to wipe down the car rather than a chamois, which can hold grit.

Rather than clambering on the door sills to reach the car’s roof, they stand on a portable platform. Floor mats are clipped to a custom-made rack away from dirt and debris, to be steam cleaned.

It’s all very smart and sophisticated, an impression reinforced by the classical music playing over the Tannoy. During my visit, I hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, opera star Plácido Domingo and the soundtrack to Out of Africa, which makes me dream of a land far from Canvey...

I can’t resist having a go with the steam lances. I pop into the staff room and emerge moments later in my Formula 1-style race suit. Navid hands me one of the lances, turns the steam to ‘wet’ and lets me loose on a customer’s Q5.

He says steam is much gentler than a jet wash, which he’s seen lift paint around stone chips, as well as the edges of a colour wrap. It certainly makes light work of the door shuts and alloy wheels.

Next, I turn the valve to the dry steam position to do the interior.

It seems wrong to be blasting the Audi’s dashboard and leather seats but they emerge almost dry from the experience and looking like new.

I return the lance to its rack just as customers Peter and Gill return from Sainsbury’s to claim their Q5. It’s their 10th visit to Luv Your Car. “All the local cleaning businesses are a bit slapdash but this one leaves your car spotless and streak-free,” Peter says. “The people are polite and friendly too. We’ll be back!”

Having seen what Luv Your Car can do for his Q5, I may just be back myself with my old motor. While some of my local hand car washes continue to fail their workers and customers, it’s the best excuse I can think of to go to Canvey Island, independent or not.

How to spot a rogue car wash: 

The office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has produced five telltale signs of exploitation at car washes. If you think someone is being exploited, call the police or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700.

1. Workers are not wearing protective clothing but are dressed in tracksuits or jeans with trainers or flip-flops.

2. Premises have unsuitable drainage, exposed electrical wiring, temporary signs, no public liability indemnity insurance and no evidence of first aid equipment.

3. Despite the business charging only around £5 for a car wash, there are three or more people washing a single car, meaning workers are unlikely to be on the minimum wage.

4. Staff cannot speak English very well and appear anxious and exhausted. A supervisor is present who is polite to customers but not his staff.

5. Large shipping containers near a lavatory and hanging laundry suggest workers are living on site.

John Evans

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Join the debate


24 March 2018

There are no 'unregulated' car washes in the UK. Every one of them are subject to the same Workplace safety, environmental and employment legislation as anywhere else.

It's good to see this employer doing things right.


24 March 2018

...it's quite clear what is meant by the phrase in this context: that the 'companies', whilst subject to the workplace safety, environmental and employment regulations, are non-compliant with said regulations.

24 March 2018

Then the author could have said so. Unregulated implies that they operate in an absence of any kind of regulation when even you seem to realise that they do. I was on the forecourt of a hand car wash last year when HMRC, Police and others rolled up for a visit.  Possibly connected to this visit, I noticed last week the staff were now in Hi Vis and branded uniforms.


24 March 2018
Jon 1972 wrote:

 There are no 'unregulated' car washes in the UK. ...

Just like the "immigrant in a back shed", its amazing that the people we pay to regulate our regulations and laws (local authority, police) take their responsisibilities so lightly. Probably they are too comfortable waiting for their gold-plated final salary pensions... 

24 March 2018
A34 wrote:

Jon 1972 wrote:

 There are no 'unregulated' car washes in the UK. ...

Just like the "immigrant in a back shed", its amazing that the people we pay to regulate our regulations and laws (local authority, police) take their responsisibilities so lightly. Probably they are too comfortable waiting for their gold-plated final salary pensions... 

Do you know they take it so lightly? Or is it that you are likely ignorant to the severe budget pressures these organisations are under.

24 March 2018

  Sounds like a great service they give, what are the menu prices for Car washing...?

24 March 2018

They are the visible sores of a country allowed to descend into increasing sickness.

24 March 2018

People who use back-street hand car washes are condoning slavery and abuse of vulnerable people. And besides washing your car is good exercise!

25 March 2018

  Washing your Car yourself should take about thirty minutes for a Car Ford Focus size, to do inside valet of interior using a Hoover should take about twenty minutes, and that’s just a basic cleaning, going further with other car care products depends on how clean you want it, if a Carwash can do the basic inside and out in thirty minutes and at a fair price it’s a good idea if you going shopping to use them.

25 March 2018

I find washing the car quite satisfying plus it doesn't take long and I'd rather look after my own car and the save the cash. That said if one of my local car washes was up to the standard of the place described on Canvey Island and used a steam wash system I might take my car in before I polish it to get all of the road grime off.


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