A Tesco car wash in Congleton, Cheshire, was found to be paying undocumented Romanian workers well under the national minimum wage, the BBC's Inside Out programme learned while filming Cheshire police raids relating to modern slavery.
Waves Car Wash is responsible for managing Tesco's hand car wash portfolio via a franchise system. According to the company's website, it manages around 240 of these sites in the UK.
A Tesco spokesperson told the BBC: "Waves work closely with legal authorities to ensure full checks of workers and ensure decent treatment – and their operation is regarded as industry leading by independent labour experts.
"It is very disappointing that, on this occasion, the stringent procedures we agreed with them appear not to have been followed by the franchisee holder at this site."
Waves added that it "took swift action" to close the franchise earlier in the year after it discovered workers were being paid £3.63 an hour, which is slightly more than half the National Living Wage of £7.20 per hour for workers over the age of 25.
Another car wash in Cheshire – run by a different company – was found to be illegally employing asylum seekers. However, no charges were brought against either company since the workers said they had not been coerced.
Slavery in the UK
The number of people living as slaves is unknown. However, according to the Modernslavery.co.uk website which cites UK government statistics, the international crime affects almost 30 million people, worldwide. Often victims of modern slavery are vulnerable people or those from overseas.
Warning signs listed by the organisation include poor living conditions, few or no personal effects, restricted freedom of movement – for example, confiscated passports – and may appear to be rarely allowed to travel on their own. The government's referral statistics showed that women were disproportionately affected, constituting 64% of cases between 2012-2013.
With the issue of modern slavery apparently increasing by almost 50% in the same timeframe, the UK government passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. Among its powers, the Act provides a statutory defence for victims of modern slavery who are forced to commit offences as a consequence of their slavery.