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British car wash app flags nearly 1,000 cases of modern slavery

Car Wash
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The free app launched by the Church of England and the Catholic Church invites users to report suspected slave labor.

British motorists have reported over 900 suspected cases of modern-day slavery with the help of the new, “Safe Car Wash App.” The app, designed to identify slavery in the popular British hand car washes, lists a variety of red flags such as if the car wash only accepts cash, if workers live on-site, if some of them seem fearful, or if they lack gloves or shoes.

If selected indicators suggest that the operation is using slave labor, the app prompts the user to phone the authorities. According to a study of the app, however, only 18% of users (126) who were asked to call the service actually did. The Clewer Initiative — the Church of England’s anti-slavery arm — said this number was “disappointing.”

The free app was launched last year by the Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales. While they are looking for ways to better engage their users, some activists believe they may have better luck through texting. Caroline Robinson, director of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), told Reuters:

“This kind of public awareness can be positive, although there can be some downsides in that the public isn’t trained in the way that public officials are. The anonymity of an app is more appealing to people than a phonecall. If people are uncertain…which is understandable for a member of the public, they might not be certain enough to make a phonecall.”

According to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation, it is estimated that 136,000 people live within the bonds of illegal, underground slavery. This number is about 10 times higher than it was in 2013. Cases of slavery have been found in building sites, nail bars, factories, and farms, but hand car washes — unregulated business which spring up all over — are the most common cause for concern for callers of Britain’s slavery help line.

A parliamentary probe of hand car washes, set up last April, determined that thousands of car wash workers are most likely slaves. Most of these are men who were lured from Eastern Europe and trapped in debt bondage. When this occurs victims are stripped of their documents and subjected to threats, violence, and other methods of abuse.

Bishop Alastair Redfern, chair of The Clewer Initiative, was proud of the results of his app, even if he did seem disheartened by the data:

“Sadly, the findings so far confirm what we already feared – that many car washes do not protect their workers. Our conversations with colleagues from law enforcement suggest that the data from the Safe Car Wash app is providing another piece in the puzzle of how to combat this complex crime. We hope to continue to build on this progress.”

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