Supermarkets warned over ethical and environmental impacts of hand car washes

The Environment Agency will write to major UK supermarkets to call on them to ensure that hand car washes operating in their car parks take appropriate efforts to tackle pollution and human rights concerns, after the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warned of the "spectrum of exploitation" taking place in the practice.

Supermarkets warned over ethical and environmental impacts of hand car washes

A total of 22 car washers have been named by the Government for failing to pay minimum wage

The EAC’s report, Hand car washes, published in November 2018, called on governing bodies and supermarkets to do more to oversee hand car washes companies to ensure they don’t contribute to water-based pollution or cases of human rights abuses.

As a result of that report, the Environment Agency has agreed to write to supermarkets on the matter, while the Government has agreed to update its pollution prevention guidance.

The EAC’s chair Mary Creagh said: “Our highly critical report into hand car washes found widespread and alarming breaches of planning, employment and environmental laws.

“We are pleased the Government has accepted two of our recommendations, by asking the Environment Agency to write to supermarkets and promising to update the pollution prevention guidance. These are positive steps towards ending the discharge of dirty water into rivers.”

It is estimated that hand car washes account for around 80% of the UK car wash sector by volume, according to the Petrol Retailers Association.

The EAC is concerned that some hand car washes are letting wastewater flow directly into surface water drains, contributing to water pollution. However, the Committee does acknowledge that impact is likely less than drains discharge or poor practice from water firms.

However, detergents and vehicle dirt in wash water can reduce water quality and have a potentially toxic impact on animal and plant life as a result. Car wash wastewater can contain phosphates, detergents, surfactants, oils, silts/sediments, traffic film remover, rubber, copper and other metals.

The EAC recommends that the Environment Agency reminds supermarkets that any hand car washes operating in their carparks should have “the appropriate drainage in place connecting to a foul sewer”.

The UK is required to minimise water pollution as a signatory to EU Water Framework Directive. However, as of 2016, a little over a third (35%) of UK surface water was classified as good by the Directive.

Human rights concerns

As part of an evidence collection session for the report, the EAC was told that a ‘spectrum of exploitation’ was taking place in the practice, ranging from non-payment of minimum wage to more serious accusations of debt bondage.

The average price of hand car washes is around £5, yet evidence mentioned in the report notes if the companies were paying the national minimum or living wage with statutory holidays and pension contribution, the cost per wash would range from £6.88 to £11.10.

Evidence suggests that “flagrant rule breaking” is taking place across thousands of car hand washes. However, the report notes that there is no data to indicate cases of tax evasion, or breach of employment laws. Evidence submitted to the EAC claimed that it could be as high as 90%.

A total of 22 car washers have been named by the Government for failing to pay minimum wage, with underpaid employees ranging from one to 13.

The Modern Slavery Helpline’s 2017 Annual Assessment, on the other hand, recorded 194 cases relating to worker treatment at car washes, representing 27% of the total cases of labour exploitation in the UK that year.

“There is more to do on tackling labour exploitation. This should have been addressed by adopting our recommendation of a trial licensing scheme. It is disappointing that ministers have opted for a pilot approach that is voluntary,” Creagh added.

“With so few minimum wage prosecutions despite the exploitation of workers being commonplace, the Government must send a strong message to car wash operators that such practices are illegal and that it will not turn a blind eye.”

Fortunately, cases are emerging of supermarkets and organisations uniting to improve the transparency and management of the practice. In October 2018, the Responsible Car Wash Scheme was launched to identify compliance cases. The scheme was developed by the Downstream Fuel Association in conjunction with the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), five major supermarkets, the police, the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency, HMRC, anti-slavery charity Unseen, and national car wash operator Waves.

Matt Mace

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