Modern Slavery: Migrants Forced to Work Grueling Hours at Hand Car Washes

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Across the United Kingdom, the exploitation of trafficked laborers has led to an explosion of cheap hand car wash businesses, according to recent articles in the Guardian. For around $7 USD, any customer can have their car washed.  According to these reports, business owners keep their prices low due to gross practices of slave labor and unsanitary work environments. Laborers often live in unsanitary, shared rooms, on floors with a single mattress, that a court described as “abject squalor,” according to a January 2017 article in the Times. With a lack of provided food, and little money to go buy their own, these laborers are often subject to a cycle of illness, malnutrition, and hopelessness. One laborer, Sandu Laurentiu, was electrocuted and subsequently killed while using a shower in his dilapidated, rat-infested living quarters, according to the Guardian. Each illegal business employs approximately twelve workers, however the estimated number of businesses in the United Kingdom ranges from 10,000-20,000.

Although there are an estimated thousands of illegal businesses in the United Kingdom, only one case has led far enough to an arrest; there are still countless victims that live in subhuman conditions. According to the Guardian, the Modern Slavery Helpline received 493 reports of potential cases of labor exploitation in hand car washes across the country, with 2,170 potential victims. In 2017, the helpline received a majority of its tips from illegal car wash businesses. A rise in the amount of illegal activity is a consequence of affordable land for car wash facilities, as well as changes in the EU labor market. These changes have seen an influx of migrant workers, and a car wash is a common first job for visitors. To business owners, migrants are vulnerable and easy to exploit for work.

All too often, a consumer will pay a lower price without considering the “real costs” of their car wash. The United Kingdom has come under scrutiny for not tackling modern slavery more aggressively, and concerns continue to grow about the treatment of victims, due to recent budget cuts. Car washes are businesses in the UK that formally required to adhere to labor regulations, however many businesses are either unregistered (which makes them impossible to track), or are not adequately policed. The UK has also come under fire for turning a blind eye to the practices.


Annie Kelly, “From Nail Bars to Car Washes: How Big Is the UK’s Slavery Problem?” The Guardian, October 18, 2018,

Simon Usborne, “What Is the True Human Cost of Your £5 Hand Car Wash?” The Guardian, July 16, 2018,

Student Researcher: Chad Fahey (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)