The professional carwash industry is a $23 billion enterprise, one which more and more Americans make use of every year. If you visited a carwash lately – which judging by the latest industry report you probably have or will in the near future – you may have noticed the fast and arduous labor of carwash workers. You have seen that even in the most extreme heat or cold weather, carwash workers are hard at it – focusing on every nook and cranny of your vehicle. What you probably missed – as is the case in many carwashes across the country – is that this work is accompanied by obscene labor abuses, health hazardous conditions, employer exploitation and intimidation. Carwash workers are the face of the new American sweatshop.
Carwash operators routinely violate basic employment laws like those requiring workers be permitted to take rest breaks or have access to shade and clean drinking water. Workers frequently work more than 10 hours a day, more than 6 days a week, without even the slightest thought of overtime. In fact, car wash workers are often paid much less than the legal minimum wage, sometimes earning less than $3 an hour or working for cash tips alone. Employees who complain about the exploitative conditions at the workplace are often intimidated and threatened by car wash operators.
A majority of carwash workers are Latino and immigrants – many do not have a clear understanding of their rights, which opens the door for abusive car wash operators to take advantage. Cuéntame has launched a documentary video and a national campaign exposing the sweatshop practices and is calling for individuals who have witnessed these or other abusive conditions at their local car washes to submit there stories on their website.
Cuéntame has documented how carwash workers are subject to health and safety hazards such as constant exposure to water and to dangerous chemicals without protective gear. Workers in the industry have reported severe kidney damage, respiratory problems and nerve deterioration. Most lack health insurance, services or protection and end up using up all their earnings to pay their medical bills. It is a shameful and vicious cycle with no apparent end.
According to the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN), an advocacy organization working to protect car wash workers’ rights, in Los Angeles, CA alone there are approximately 10,000 carwash workers that are potentially exposed to this abuse on a daily basis. This past June, the Clean Carwash Campaign helped a former Los Angeles carwash worker win an $80,000 lawsuit against his ex-employers who forced him for years to work early in the morning but prevented him from clocking in officially until later in the day. The campaign has been working to improve conditions and to ensure that carwash employers meet labor standards and abide by fair workplace practices, but there is still much more that needs to be done.
The exploitation of car wash workers is the face of a new American sweatshop, one that operates in plain daylight in our communities, in our neighborhoods and at our corner carwash. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to it.