Detectives from PSNI’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) along with partners in Northern Ireland Water, HMRC and Home Office Immigration Enforcement carried out a multi-agency operation at a hand car wash in the Greater Belfast area earlier today, Wednesday 27 November.
The proactive operation, which aimed to identify potential victims and raise awareness with the public about the signs that they should be looking out for, was the result of information received from the public, raising concerns about potential human trafficking at the car wash.
Detective Inspector Mark Bell from PSNI’s 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.
“Whilst 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.
“Whilst 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.
“Whilst there was no evidence of human trafficking or modern slavery offences at the hand car wash that we visited today, we need the public to continue to report any concerns that they might have to us.
Some of the signs and indicators of people potentially being subjected to exploitation in hand car washes to look out for include:
Workers not appropriately dressed or kitted out with protective equipment for these weather conditions
Electricity being bypassed at a car wash from a public electrical post
Evidence of workers living on site at the car wash
Someone working who appears to be under the strict control of others
Houses of multiple occupancy, for example 15- 20 people living in a three bedroom house who are being transported to and from a car wash
“Whilst it is important to note that the presence of one or two of these signs and indicators in isolation does not necessarily mean that the people involved are victims of trafficking or being forced to work against their will, it is best to let the appropriate authorities make that decision so I continue to encourage the public to report any concerns to PSNI on 101.”
The multi-agency approach involves PSNI working with a number of partner agencies including NI Water; Health and Safety Executive (HSE); Department of Communities Fraud Department (DOC); Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs water pollution (DAERA), Home Office Immigration Enforcement and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). These other agencies can exercise criminal and civil powers that aid disruption and decrease the possibility of workers being exploited.
Over the last four years, the main repeated areas of concern, which significantly vary among car washes, are in relation to wages and employment terms, working conditions and living conditions.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland is appealing for anyone who witnessed the incident or anyone with any information that will assist the investigation to contact us on the non-emergency number 101. Information can also be passed anonymously via the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.