CAR washes in north Swindon were visited by police yesterday morning as officers stepped up efforts to tackle modern slavery.

Sgt Nathan Perry, who helped organise the operation, said the cash-in-hand businesses could be used as fronts for organised crime gangs.

Two car washes were visited, in Stratton and Penhill. Swindon police officers, joined on the operation by a pair of Immigration Enforcement officers, spoke to workers and checked papers.

The owner of one business, 5 Star Hand Car Wash on Cricklade Road, was issued with a civil notice after officers found a Kurdish man suspected of working illegally at the firm. The penalty notice carries a fine of up to £20,000.

Police said the visits were part of a bid to build intelligence and improve relationships with car wash business owners.

Sgt Ed Audritt told the Adver: “Today’s not so much going around shaking people up. It’s to make sure they’re safe.”

Modern slavery is a growing concern for police. Last month, West Midlands Police cracked the country’s largest ever slavery gang – responsible for trafficking 400 vulnerable Polish homeless, alcoholics and ex-prisoners to the UK, where they worked for as little as 50p a day.

Between April 2017 and March 2018, police forces nationwide recorded 3,337 modern slavery crimes. Wiltshire Police was one of just two forces across the country that did not record a single offence – although offenders may have been dealt with for other crimes, like drugs supply.

Laws passed in 2015 introduced new slavery offences, earning those convicted prison sentences ranging from 12-months to life imprisonment.

Historically, cash-in-hand businesses like car washes have been associated with forced labour. In the past, they have been operated by Albanian gangs keen to launder cash. Immigration officers say those running the businesses have increasingly moved from employing mostly Albanian workers to EU nationals, who are legally allowed to work in the UK.

In Swindon, the police and the borough council have specialist teams dedicated to investigating modern slavery and supporting those suspected of having been trafficked into the country.

However, Swindon North community policing team’s Sgt Perry still urged people call police over concerns about businesses they think may be employing people illegally: “You never think it will happen to you, just as you think it will never happen in your neighbourhood.

“That’s why we end up with these intelligence gaps. Modern slavery is now more rife than it ever was before.

“If things get missed, ultimately that’s when lives start getting destroyed.

“If you have concerns, speak out. It’s members of the public who are using these businesses.

“It’s not as if every one of these businesses you come across are a front for money laundering. But if you have concerns you might be saving a life by telling someone.”

Diana Isufi, owner of a Hyde Road car wash visited by police, agreed the welfare checks were important: “I don’t want other laboured businesses to bring us down. We’ve been here now for 11 years and we’ve never had police checks. It’s obviously worrying, pulling up and seeing the police presence.”