Workers are forced to toil in inhumane conditions while suffering from conditions like trench foot and chemical burns, experts warned yesterday.
Dr Akila Jardine said the unregulated industry – consisting of around 20,000 car washes nationwide – is rife with exploitation.
At one site staff were forced to live on spare change vacuumed from underneath car seats, the Times reported.
Victims are often brought over from Eastern Europe on the promise of paid work and a better life in the UK.
But many have their passports seized or are threatened to stop them running away.
Dr Jardine, a researcher at the University of Nottingham's Rights Lab, said workers are often forced into debt to their captors who claim they are owed money for their accommodation or transport.
In many cases their accommodation is little more than a mattress in an over-occupied house — or a foul illegal tenement.
Romanian slave worker Sandu Laurentiu-Sava, 40, died after being electrocuted in a rat-infested shower behind a car wash in Bethnal Green, East London.
In January his boss Shaip Nimani, 52, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was jailed for four years.
And in April two Czech brothers-in-law were convicted on slavery charges after forcing workers to wash cars in Cardiff for little or no money.
Roman Feko and Ladislav Fedak targeted homeless or vulnerable men, driving one to attempt suicide after learning he was bought "like a piece of furniture", the BBC reported.
Mihai, another Romanian slave worker, was forced to wash cars in Cumbria for 11-hours a day with no breaks — for as little as £30, the Evening Standard reported.
Fuel retail industry representative Teresa Sayers said the cost of a car wash for a legal business to break even is around £6.40.
It means drivers paying less than this are likely funding an exploitative firm.
She told the environmental audit committee: "If everything is very, very cheap it is clearly an indication that they are cutting corners or somebody is being exploited.
"If you are to do a more in-depth valet it's about £12, and that's without making any money."
A Nottingham Business School study of 45 hand car washes found none paid the national minimum wage.
Earlier this month the Anglican and Catholic churches in England urged the public to report suspicious car washes to the police to tackle slavery.
They launched The Safe Car Wash app to help drivers identify signs of forced labour.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described modern slavery as a "scourge which is damaging so many people’s lives".
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