The carwashers

By Ana-Maria Cirstea and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 25 April 2020


Marcel* and ten other Romanian men live in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Greater London. Seven of the house’s inhabitants used to also share a workplace, labouring alongside each other in a local car wash. Earning between £900-£1200 per month, they worked tiring, 10-11 hour days, 6 days a week. Some of them had been there for years, scrubbing and hosing around the small perimeter for the past four years, ever since their arrival in the UK. Others had returned to the car wash intermittently, following stints of work in Romania or in other local businesses. 

In many respects, the case of the car washers resembled situations our advisers had dealt with in the past - an intersection of informal agreements, cash payments and normalised exploitation, where unscrupulous companies took advantage of workers who were too young and too timid to demand their rights. On another level however, their case was also special. In the ways in which it revealed the extent to which some employers go to defraud their staff; but also in the  difficulty of standing up for employment justice during a global pandemic.

When “handing your documents” turns to identity theft

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Marcel and his seven colleagues were abruptly let go. Despite their frugal living and exhausting work schedule, they had hardly any savings. Suddenly unemployed and lacking new job prospects on the brink of a global pandemic, they got in touch with the Work Rights Centre: “Mam, we can’t pay rent this Sunday!”. We started investigating their case straight away. 

Our advisers called the HMRC Employee helpline, to discover that only one of the seven Romanian car washers featured as a formal employee - and even he had been registered as “part-time”, in a gross underrepresentation of the hours he laboured every day. In every other case, the men had been pushed into informality. They had “given their papers”, as instructed. They had passed on copies of their passport and their National Insurance Number, as every new employee is asked to, ever since the government has made it a legal requirement for employers to check their staff’s right to work. And yet, instead of being registered with the HMRC as workers, tax payers, and citizens entitled to a level of statutory protections, their identities had been misappropriated. 

After digging a little deeper, we learnt that, unbeknownst to them, four of the seven car wash workers had been listed as self-employed labourers in construction over the past two years. This was the stuff of criminal ingenuity, that left them, our advisers, and the HMRC investigator we reported the case to completely bemused. Someone had meticulously filed their tax returns and even opened a bank account. Needless to say, the four men had never even set foot on a construction site. 

Fighting employment exploitation during the pandemic

Upon finding this information, our advisers set off on a mission on several fronts. First, it was against identity theft and tax fraud. To guarantee that their identities would no longer be fraudulently used, our service providers reported the workers’ IDs and HMRC passwords as lost. They requested copies of the tax returns filed without the workers’ knowledge, and forwarded these to the HMRC Tax Fraud team. Awaiting the result of the official HMRC investigation, four workers could retain their Unique Taxpayer Reference, which would allow them to eventually register for self-employment. In the meantime, we instructed Marcel and another three to draft statements detailing their employment at the car wash (and stating that they have never worked in construction), in preparation for a case in the Employment Tribunal. After all, there was a lot they were entitled to. After years of working precariously, at almost half the National Minimum Wage, they were owed back pay, holiday pay, and a litany of rights associated with worker status.

The multitude of employment rights breaches is something that will take months to settle. It is the stuff worthy of campaigns, pointing to how vulnerability built around individual factors, such as migrants’ poor levels of English and IT literacy, are entrenched by structural issues - such as the lack of legal aid for employment cases, and the lack of resources dedicated to tackling work precarity.

It is important to remember however, that in a case like this, where injustice is urgent, and people fear losing their homes, as Marcel told our advisers, we need to take the short-term seriously 

Some things just have to be solved now

To help the workers cover their living expenses, we started the process of applying for Universal Credit. Our advisers patiently completed the application for two of them, instructing the others on how to fill in the form themselves. Here too, there were barriers to overcome.  First, five of the seven workers lacked a bank account. We helped them open a Monzo account (an online mobile bank with fewer restrictions than conventional, high-street banks), to ensure that they could access the funds. The absence of three-month bank statements or a formal work status was also likely to make it harder to pass the assessment. There were times when we even doubted whether they would make it.

But they did. Seven out of the eight car washers were successful in their application for Universal Credit. One of them even got a job at a supermarket, which helped support the others while the application for Universal Credit was being considered. They stayed united, and stuck up for each other. We taught them how to negotiate with their landlord for a delayed rent payment, and how to access local food banks to help with everyday living costs. 

As their story  continued, and we planned the long game of taking the case to court with the help of a solicitor, we also helped Marcel and his colleagues apply for the EU Settlement Scheme, to ensure that they retain a legal right of residence after Brexit. 

Casework means solving problems, but also offering hope

Throughout this time, we were there to guide, and to mentor. Amidst the uncertainty of unemployment and a global health crisis, the role of service providers is not only to help guide vulnerable workers through the nexus of legal entitlements and bureaucracy. It is also to provide hope and encouragement, to inject a dose of humanity and possibility in a situation that seems overwhelming at first.

At the end of a lengthy case working session, our colleague Adelina, who lead on the case, recalls laughing together with Marcel and his colleagues, as they pictured working as “engineers on a construction site”. “If it wasn’t for the laughter, this would be a story to cry over”, as the Romanian expression goes (dacă n-ar fi de râs, ar fi de plâns). 

*To protect our clients’ privacy, we have chosen to use a pseudonym. 

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