Human trafficking case spurs Southwark to audit all hand car washes

16 May 2019, Katie Coyne

A man washing a car's front wheel

Southwark Council has vetted every hand car wash in the south London borough after human trafficking was discovered at one last year.

Southwark’s health and safety liaison team carried out the visits last summer to give advice and distribute health and safety information packs. The four-strong team was also trained on spotting signs of modern day slavery.

The health and safety visits were a useful ‘way in’ and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – as the enforcement authority for health and safety breaches at car washes – approved of the visits on the provision that Southwark passed on any irregularities to it for action.

Across 17 sites the Southwark team found signs of human trafficking and health and safety concerns at two premises, which it passed on to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and HSE.

Most of the sites were compliant with health and safety law and displayed no signs of modern day slavery. The majority were also cooperative with Southwark officers.

Southwark believes it is the first council to vet all of its hand car washes and urged other local authorities to follow suit if they have concerns. It has published its report on its website for reference.

Sarah Newman, commercial business unit manager in Southwark’s regulatory services division, said: “I think it was a very helpful exercise. It wasn’t expensive to do, and it was all done as part of our work programme for the health and safety liaison team.

“The HSE are never going to get around to inspect the growing number of hand car washes in the country due to financial restrictions. They are reliant on local intelligence to get to those bad apples in the barrel. We did a ‘skim and sort’ exercise for them.”

Key health and safety concerns the team highlighted during visits included unsafe chemical storage, electrical equipment’s proximity to water sources and adequate protective clothing and equipment for the workers.

The two hand car washes flagged as concerning by the report have been visited by the HSE, which has made recommendations to the operators around health and safety breaches. The GLAA has found no direct evidence of modern slavery to date, but is monitoring the situation.

The case that spurred Southwark into action last year involved 12 Romanian workers that were thought to have been trafficked for labour at a hand car wash on the Old Kent Road. They were were discovered by the Metropolitan Police and officers from the GLAA.

On inspection of the owner’s home, a further five adults and a four-year-old child were discovered. A man was arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, money laundering and the illegal importation of tobacco products in January 2018.

The authorities were alerted by a member of the public.

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