Al Jazeera’s investigative unit has revealed that large companies in Britain may be failing to tackle slavery along their supply chains.
The findings prompted a warning from Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner that companies all over the United Kingdom could unwittingly be using modern-day slaves.
But Kevin Hyland, the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, said that new laws mean that ignorance is no longer an excuse.
Secret filming by Al Jazeera uncovered shocking conditions at a carwash in Kent, southeast England, used by dealerships for the auto giants, Volvo and Kia.
Workers living in squalid containers at the carwash in Canterbury say they are paid $50 for 12-hour shifts, suffer verbal and physical abuse, and have wages withheld for causing minor damage.
Parosha Chandran, a leading human rights lawyer, said Al Jazeera’s evidence “appears to show all the hallmarks of modern slavery,” adding that she has “grave fears that these workers are victims of human trafficking”.
“What is absolutely necessary is for Volvo to investigate all parts of its supply chain in terms of labour,” she adds. “Who is cleaning its cars?”
A new law introduced this month requires big firms to publicly and prominently report what they are doing to ensure there is no slavery in their operations and supply chains.
But our research found that 85 percent of the FTSE 100 and other leading companies do not address the Modern Slavery Act prominently, and nearly half make no mention of slavery at all on their websites.
Out of 20 other large companies surveyed, only two acknowledged the Act.
“Last year, there was a significant increase in the amount of people who are in forced labour,” Hyland says. “We realise that a large percentage of these are in legitimate supply chains.
“The legitimate and the illegitimate economy become one in some ways because, actually, companies and people don’t realise … that they are using … modern-day slaves in their supply chain.”
“I’m absolutely sure that no chief executive officer, no director, no ethical British company wants to be paying money to criminals who are keeping people in modern-day slavery. But this [investigation] highlights how businesses in the United Kingdom could be unwittingly funding criminal activity,” he says.
But Hyland emphasises that the new laws mean that companies pleading ignorance is no longer an option.
“We’ve got a Modern Slavery Act; we’ve got regulations saying we want transparency in supply chains. So people can’t say they don’t know anymore.”
“The reputational damage to companies who fail to see the obvious will be long-lasting,” Hyland adds.
From March 31, 2016, all companies with a turnover of more than $51.7m are obliged to publish a slavery statement before the end of their financial year.
The government hopes that companies will do more and create a “race to the top”, encouraging transparency and competition to drive up standards.
The Al Jazeera investigation centred on the USA Hand Car Wash in Canterbury.
Workers at the carwash were filmed cleaning cars for two Lipscomb Volvo dealerships in Canterbury and Maidstone and at the Kia Harbour Garage dealership in Whitstable.
The Albania-born owner, Avion Elezi, 35, told an undercover reporter posing as a potential client with a fleet of cars in need of washing that his workers worked six-hour shifts. When asked where the workers lived, Elezi said only that they lived “locally”.
Elezi, who has British citizenship, offered to cut his already-low prices to win the new business.
But Al Jazeera found workers claiming to work 12 and 13-hour days for less than half the legal minimum wage. They say they often had no breaks and were charged at least a day’s pay for squalid accommodation in shabby containers on the site.
Most of the workers are Romanian and speak little or no English. At least one of them claimed that the car wash boss took his travel documents from him, while others spoke of having their pay withheld as a fine for causing minor damages.
Workers who had accidentally damaged cars said their boss had deducted hundreds of pounds from their wages, leaving them earning nothing for weeks on end. Another worker had to pay a huge sum for breaking the wheels of a vacuum cleaner.
We heard that another car washer was taken into the boss’s office and punched, while the site manager said that another worker was hit even harder.
Others spoke of verbal abuse and complained of bedbugs and other pests infesting their accommodation.
Sports Direct, which fell out of the FTSE 100 in March 2016 following weak trading and allegations of poor working conditions, is one of the firms that makes no reference to slavery on its home page.
A spokesperson declined to comment, but a source said that the company was likely to publish a slavery statement in its annual report later in the year.
A spokesman for Barclays Bank, which also has no prominent reference to slavery on its homepage, said it would publish a statement before the end of its financial year, which is December 31, 2016.
The company said that it did refer to the Modern Slavery Act – on page 14 of its latest annual report, and would include a slavery statement in its next report in March 2017.
The reporter returned to the car wash to put the allegations of modern slavery to Elezi, the car wash owner, who was just back from a skiing holiday. He denied all the allegations, adding: “I am not modern slaving anybody.”
Elezi, who drives a white Range Rover for which he says he pays $1,000 a month, refused to allow the cameras into the carwash or the workers’ accommodation.
He added: “I am just trying to put food on the table and look after my family.”
A spokesman for Volvo said its code of conduct stated that its employees and franchises must comply with the law.
The Lipscomb dealership said it complied with Volvo’s code of conduct. Earlier, a manager there had told the undercover reporter that “if there had been any problem [with the carwash], we would not have used them”.
Kia Motors UK said it expected all its dealers to obey the law and Kia Harbour Garage said it was “shocked and concerned” by our allegations and had launched an investigation.
Hyland, the anti-slavery commissioner, said that carwashes had been identified as places where many workers are exploited.
“With carwashes, we do know the difference between a good carwash and a bad carwash. When you look around the country, there are very many that fall into that category of high-risk.”
“As well as carwashes, people working in agriculture, fishing, even manufacturing beds, were kept in modern-day slavery, supplying goods for the High Street.”
Thousands of Eastern Europeans work in carwashes across Britain. Many of the workers from come from poor parts of Romania, tempted by advertisements on websites that promise good pay and living conditions.
But too often, the promises do not match the reality, and the workers end up being exploited, many of them in Britain’s 20,000 unregistered carwashes.
Chandran, they lawyer, has represented many modern-day slavery victims in court, saying that the alleged exploitation at USA Hand Car Wash in Canterbury was “something that needs to be tackled very strongly by swift and effective law enforcement”.
Hyland said his message to the public was to be vigilant: “If you think that there’s somebody who is being exploited, if you think there’s a risk, then tell somebody; tell the authorities.”
Steve Chalke, a special adviser to the UN on human trafficking, urged investors to think hard about where they put their money.
“Check out what risks companies really have in this area, and what they are reporting on,” he said.