A UK government-backed body has proposed pilot schemes to license such car washes – along with nail bars – to protect workers from criminal gangs.
It follows the anti-slavery group Unseen highlighting car washes as the worst for worker exploitation in Scotland, with ten reported cases last year. There were a further 171 cases in England.
The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent filling stations, and the Car Wash Association, said the “unchecked rise” of hand car washes in the UK, which also caused environmental damage, was unprecedented in Europe.
They welcomed the licensing trials proposed by Labour Market Enforcement director Sir David Metcalf.
Brian Madderson, who chairs both associations, said: “Sir David acknowledges there are problems with unregulated hand car washes beyond human trafficking and slavery which may involve tax evasion and inappropriate handling of sometimes toxic trade effluent.
“We are pressing for urgent action on the potential loss of tax from HM Revenue & Customs and for action on environmental issues.”
MPs on the Commons’ environmental audit committee launched an inquiry into hand car washes last month.
Justine Currell, executive director of Unseen, which runs the Modern Slavery Helpline (08000 121 700), said: “In 2017, 25 per cent of all forced labour cases reported to the helpline about situations in Scotland involved car washes. Car washes are the most prevalent industry reported to the helpline, highlighting how widespread this type of exploitation is.”
Detective Chief Inspector Rory Hamilton of Police Scotland said: “We are aware criminals are using unregulated hand car washes and other cash-only trading activities as businesses which involve victims of human trafficking and exploitation.
“Along with partners we regularly carry out operations to disrupt and stop these activities and provide support to victims forced to work there.
“As well as posing a health and safety risk to individuals, such operations can pose environmental threats and are also breaking tax laws, which is why Police Scotland supports any new legislation to tackle such abuse.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “It is quite clear criminals are using car washes to exploit people and evade tax. This is a totally unacceptable situation. Modern slavery is one of the cruellest and most degrading crimes and we must do everything possible to convict the perpetrators and support all victims.
“The proposal to license car washes is an important part of that approach, but it must be implemented as part of a comprehensive strategy to eradicate people trafficking for good.”