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The UK Hand Car Wash Market

Geoff Riley

13th February 2023

You'll find plenty of hand car wash businesses dotted around the towns and cities of the UK. The hand car wash industry has come under increasing criticism in recent years both in terms of undocumented workers being paid below the minimum wage and also the environmental impact on water supply and water quality.

The industry is largely self-regulated and many local firms operate in the informal economy leading to lost tax revenues.

  • There are an estimated 10 to 15,000 hand carwashes in the UK, which are employ many thousands of people.
  • The hand car wash sector has consistently been identified as an industry where workers are at risk of exploitation and perhaps modern slavery
  • The industry has a reputation for employing undocumented workers, who are often paid low wages well below the legal minimum wage
  • Most operate a pricing system according to car size and whether interior clean/valeting option selected. Ranging from £9.00 - £15.00 for basic exterior only wash. Some are known to charge as a little as £5.00 - £6.00
  • There are significant environmental concerns about the industry.

This is an industry that typically pays very low wages:

  1. High competition: The hand car wash market is highly competitive, with low profit margins and businesses look to cut costs to remain price competitive. Many businesses use their monopsony power to pay low wages to employees.
  2. Undocumented workers: The hand car wash industry has a reputation for employing undocumented workers, who are often paid low wages and work long hours in poor conditions. A high percentage of employees are migrant workers.
  3. Lack of trade union representation: Most workers are not represented by unions, which can make it more difficult for them to negotiate collectively for better wages and improved working conditions.
  4. Weak enforcement of employment laws: There is weak enforcement of existing employment laws. There is a Responsible Car Wash Scheme.

"Only 6% of carwashes surveyed had written contracts with workers while only 11% handed out pay-slips so that they could prove they were paying minimum wage, holiday pay or sick pay."

(Source: 2022 Report from Nottingham University)

Environmental concerns

A 2018 report by the UK parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee estimated that the sector used up to 10% of the UK's total daily supply of water, much of it taken illegally from sources such as public standpipes.

The industry generates negative externalities from production. Car wash wastewater can contain phosphates, detergents, surfactants, oils, sediments, traffic film remover, rubber, copper and other metals.

The UK Hand Car Wash Market

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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