Norwegian police and labour officials have raided more than 100 car-washing halls around the country and found that none of them complied with labour regulations. With some workers being paid just NOK 19 (USD 3) an hour, and even living in the halls under deplorable conditions, “this is slavery,” police sergeant Alf-Magne Fredriksen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
The newspaper was allowed to accompany the state authorities when they carried out one of their recent surprise inspections of car-care businesses as part of their Operasjon Vaskebjørn, the code name attached to the crackdown. The result was a front-page story on Tuesday, quickly picked up by other Norwegian media, about shocking conditions for the workers, most of whom come from Spain and Italy.
‘Kitchen’ next to a dumpster
Some workers seemed to be living in the damp, often chilly garages where the car-washing, polishing and other so-called bilpleie takes place. Beds were found in a windowless room behind an office in one garage used by Risløkka Bilpleie in Oslo, along with an improvised kitchen right next to a container full of garbage in a corner. Despite all the evidence of food preparation, bedding and clothing, the owner of the car car business denied his workers lived on site.
Among the company’s customers is the Nokas money courier and security service, which has a large fleet of vehicles, along with some major car dealerships. Customers at many of the car washing halls where officials found grave violations of labour law “are resourceful people who have their cars hand-washed for NOK 150,” Knut Morten Alvestad of the labour regulatory agency Arbeidstilsynet told DN. “What are they thinking? We have a problem within society here.”
Desperate people who get trapped
The police and state officials contend that the exploited employees are mostly desperate, unemployed workers from southern Europe, or illegal aliens in the EU, who are sent to Norway on cheap airline tickets by organized human traffickers. The workers, many of whom have large debts, are lured by the promise of good job prospects in Norway, only to be forced to work for what the authorities call “slave wages.” That in turn leaves them forced to endure substandard living arrangements.
Norway has recently been accused, once again, of being a social dumping grounds. “I have earlier used the term ‘modern slavery’ about what we’ve uncovered in the construction business,” Alvestad told DN. “Now we see modern slavery in the car care business.”
Risløkka Bilpleie was immediately shut down temporarily by the authorities, who also have written out nearly 400 citations at other car care businesses. Masood Amiri, who operates Risløkka Bilpleie, told DN the kitchen equipment was left at the site by the hall’s former occupant, bankrupt Oslo Vei, and he has since removed it. He claimed he had no knowledge of any organized human trafficking, that the mattresses and other beds didn’t belong to the company and he has since complied with other citations issued by the authorities.
In another case, the owner of a car-washing hall at Lambertseter in Oslo was sentenced to eight months in prison for exploiting workers. Other firms cited have been given until June 30 to literally clean up and comply with regulations.