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Do you know what is happening in your local hand car wash?

A reflection from Tiff Trundell and Isabelle Weager on hand car washes across the Bristol part of NTU’s SPUR summer research project.


Many do not question how a hand car wash enterprise charging from as little as £2 a wash situated on the side of a main road has a legitimate business model but we have.

The nature of hand car washes are under investigation by Nottingham Civic Exchange, the School of Social Sciences and Nottingham Business School at NTU. We have gathered information on the number of hand car washes, how frequently they appear, and the treatment of workers and the environmental consequences of them.  We believe they form a part of the informal economy across England and Wales.

We are not alone in exploring this area; we work with the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority and the Clewer Initiative to explore these businesses. The Clewer Initiative has a hand car wash modern slavery mobile phone app, which can potentially predict if a hand car wash is likely to be abusing workers. The initiative to tackle modern slavery points out that although law enforcement and governing bodies are aware of issues surrounding labour exploitation, there is not enough statistical data to understand the scale of the situation.

Throughout the last week of June and July the NTU hand car wash research team has supported us to understand the hand car wash sector and map where it exists. The purpose of our part of the project has been to identify where hand washes appear across Bristol. The team will use this data to improve the predictive factors that help enforcement agencies like the GLAA to tackle exploitative hand car washes. The project team began by focusing on areas within in the Midlands, and we have helped to expand this by mapping out areas of Bristol and Manchester during our time on the project. Using Bristol as a sample area (due to Bristol’s similarity in size to Nottingham), we looked at the effectiveness of our own research and criteria in comparison with data that has been collected from Clewer to assess the best methods to gather accurate information on all aspects of hand car wash practices. Situated in the South West of England, Bristol has a core population of 460,000 its population size makes it equivalent to the size of Nottingham (330,000) with pockets of embedded deprivation; the difference in location within a different part of the UK could show variation in data trends which the team want to explore.

Our expectations of Bristol

Our expectations of Bristol were that we would find similar results to those found in the East Midlands. This meant the presence of a significant number of hand car washes (HCWs) in densely populated areas and lower volumes in more affluent areas. The assumption was that most of the hand car washes are on an open or abandoned petrol station or second-hand car forecourts as suggested by the Environmental Audit Committee hand car wash report, a Parliamentary report built around research provided by Professor Ian Clark and Rich Pickford from the NTU team. In terms of the individuals working at hand car washes and the working conditions therein, we thought that the majority of workers would work in poor or dangerous conditions with little to no protective wear.

Bristol is an up and coming city that has seen an increase in wealth (according to Gross Value Added since 1998) and because of this we thought that the data we collected might be slightly different from other areas the current research team have explored but not to the extent we found.

The reality of Bristol

When looking at Bristol’s hand car washes, we were surprised to find that the city contained fewer HCWs than the team found in other cities. We had been expecting to find close to 75 hand car washes in Bristol as we had in other major cities, however, we only found 44. To search for hand car washes in Bristol we used the same research methodology as the team, first searching via Google Maps to find listed sites and then used the predictive risk map, created by Dr James Hunter and Rich Pickford. This secondary search using streetview in high potential areas aims to find sites not publically advertised.

Through researching hand car washes in Bristol, we found a possible reason why there are fewer than in other cities. Media searches highlighted that the population of Bristol may know more about the issues surrounding HCWs that makes them less acceptable to many potential customers. The vast majority of hand car washes were in the north and as we expected many were near the Avon River where there is a lot of abandoned or unused space. In total, we found 44 HCWs and contrary to our original beliefs, most of the hand car washes were in carparks (10) or former/current garages (12). Furthermore, it was surprising to find that those car washes absent from Google tended to have less visible workers with average number of workers being less than half that of car washes listed on Google.

Comparing criteria to the Safe Care Wash App

Clewer launched their Safe Car Wash app in 2018 to encourage members of the public to list hand car washes they believe to be carrying out acts of modern slavery through a series of questions regarding the cost of a car wash, clothing worn by workers and onsite living. Once the app is open, it records the location of the phone onto the system database. Our research uses many of the same criteria but also takes into consideration the long-term environmental impact of hand car washes. We achieve this by recording if there is a sufficient drainage system (interceptors), previous site usage to uncover any correlations between site types and potential areas of interest for future hand car washes along with Clewer’s criteria mentioned above. We then categorised hand car washes based on various degrees of legitimacy, starting from clear signs of entrepreneurship, heading towards legitimacy and illegitimate business activity i.e. suspected money-laundering activities.

Public perception and considerations

Most commonly, hand car washes appear in more deprived socio-economic areas within towns and cities. Land is cheaper in more built up and overcrowded areas but hand car washes generate only a small turnover so it is important to keep costs low. The location of hand car washes means that for those from affluent areas, finding a car wash, whether automated or manual, may involve travelling elsewhere. The differences between socio-economic areas may create stigma surrounding hand car washes and a cultural expectation of low-priced hand car washes representing ‘value for money’. However, increased competition in built up areas may result in very low prices and may mean often consumers do not question the legitimacy of these enterprises.

It is important to acknowledge the visible signs of labour exploitation and environmental damage, for example, signs of exploitation and potential environmental damage include prices of less than £7, heavily degraded tarmac and a lack of shelter for workers. Regulators and researchers suggest that if a customer pays less than £7 it is unlikely that a car wash meets legal regulations because they will struggle to cover costs and pay the minimum living wage. We found an average cost of £5 advertised in hand car washes across Bristol, suggesting a significant level of wage theft against the national minimum and national living wage. Additionally, workers operate without any form of shelter throughout the working day and many do not wear any form of protective clothing such as wellies to protect them from harsh chemicals that they work with on a daily basis. That is they are unprotected by their employer. The presence of caravans on site increases the likelihood that workers are living at a car wash and from an environmental perspective, the absence of appropriate drainage may cause long-term surface damage.  Therein, chemicals and water are unmanaged and often degrade the ground and may run into the local watercourse. The poor quality surface that this produces will also damage your car.


In conclusion, hand car washes are far more problematic than the majority of people believe (and certainly more of an issue than we expected when we started doing this research) as many of the workers work in unsuitable condition with little to no access to shelter or bathrooms and work without access to personal protective equipment. Furthermore, hand car washes are connected to more extreme work and human rights infringement such as modern slavery, wage theft and debt bondage. These factors require a   call to action. Some hand car washes may be problematic and generate severe consequences for the individuals working there. Our suggestion is that when visiting a hand car wash you look for the signs. Are there caravans on site? Does it look like someone may be living there? Does the work environment look safe? Are the workers wearing protective gear? If any of these are concerning then it is best that you leave the premises and contact the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (0345 602 5020). The more informed we hear about these issues the more effectively we can tackle them.

Our time supporting the project has now finished but the team are continuing to increase the scale of this project and will be employing additional researchers to support them as they begin to classify the risk at hand car washes located across the UK this autumn.  If you are interested in working with the team as we have please take a look at this Research Assistant opportunity which will give you experience of working in a multi-disciplinary team who are engaged with the GLAA and other partners to tackle problematic employment and environmental issues at hand car washes across the UK. (Application deadline Monday 2 September)

Written by

Tiff Trundell

NTU Sociology student and SPUR researcher

“The issue of bad work especially underpaid work is something that has always interested me as it is an issue that affects a large proportion of society, so I feel this research is invaluable to both policy makers, social scientists and society as a whole.”

Isabelle Weager

Business Management and Human Resources student and SPUR researcher

“This project will also make citizens aware of informal [work] practices that are going on in their local community and [identify] ways to prevent them.”

Nottingham Civic Exchange

Nottingham Civic Exchange has been established by Nottingham Trent University to maximise research, policy and practical impact by bringing together university expertise with partners seeking to address the needs of local communities. Nottingham Civic Exchange acts as a resource to look at social and economic issues in new ways. This means facilitating debate, acting as a bridge between research and policy debates, and developing practical projects at a local, city and regional level.

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Published on 9 August 2019
  • Category: Current students; Nottingham Civic Exchange; Research; Nottingham Business School; School of Social Sciences