The Nuns, the app and the car wash

Have you heard the one about the nuns, the app and the carwash? Well, if not, it is really interesting and full of lessons for digital campaigning.

The Clewer sisters are ‘an Anglican order of Augustinian nuns founded in 1852 to help marginalised, mainly young women, who found themselves homeless and drawn into the sex trade, by providing them shelter and teaching them a trade’. The Clewer Initiative is a campaign within the Church of England to tackle modern slavery. It is funded by the Sisters and aimed at the estimated 13,000 people trapped in the UK in modern slavery, 200 years after formal slavery was abolished. It is ‘ is a three year project to enable Church of England dioceses and wider Church networks to develop strategies to detect modern slavery in their communities and help provide victim support and care. It involves working with the Church locally … Nationally, it involves developing a network of practitioners committed to sharing models of best practice and providing evidenced based data to resource the Church’s national engagement with statutory and non-statutory bodies’. So, this is good old-fashioned social justice campaigning. The Initiative is working with bodies like the National Crime Agency and the NSPCC (the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).

The Initiative has developed an app to highlight one aspect of modern slavery – the use of forced labour in informal car washes. This has received good media coverage – though, by itself, foreign forced car washers are just an example of a wider issue. But, it is a brilliant idea – both as a symbol of the wider campaign and as a specific way in which an individual might be involved in something which they might encounter. The app logs your location at a car wash, and then offers you a series of questions about, for example, suitable clothing, how much you paid, and offers you the chance to call the national modern slavery hotline to report any concerns. You are promised that ‘The data the app collects will be anonymised and shared with the National Crime Agency and the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, two law enforcement agencies who are leading on efforts to stamp out modern slavery across the UK.’

The app was downloaded over 8000 times in the first six months since it was launched in June 2018 and 2000 reports made. These suggest all the symptoms of under the radar operation if not necessary modern slavery: An academic assessment found that ‘in nearly half of reports, or 48%, workers did not have access to suitable protective clothing such as gloves or boots, despite many hand car washes typically requiring their workers to use potentially harmful chemicals such as hydrochloric acid. A large majority of responses, 80%, said that the car wash had a cash only policy. Nearly one in 10, or 8%, of reports logged that minors were working on site, and 17% of users identified fearful workers.’ There were 126 calls to the slavery hotline: ‘This is disappointing, as it is only 18% of those who were asked to call.’

It may well be that the app achieves only limited success in addressing slavery at car washes. Modern slavery, after all, is enforced in such circumstances rather more subtlety than by whips and handcuffs. It is often difficult to know if car washers are grumpy because of the rain; because they are knackered; or because they forced to be there. For the eastern Europeans particularly from Romania who seem to staff many of them, there may be little difference between having little option but to find such work for cash and being forced in a way which reaches the bar of illegality.

However, the value of the app is much more than in its immediate application. It has got the Initiative publicity for its wider campaign. It puts the Church centre stage on a contemporary scandal. And it shows the potential for combining the various functions of a smartphone – geolocation, phone, data recording – in the service of what is effectively a political campaign. It is the sort of combination that has been used in housing eg by And it is the sort of innovative use of the internet that we should seek out and applaud.

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