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The heartbreaking reality of retail worker abuse

Article by Emma Hardy

Coronavirus crisis threw a light on the vital roles of many previously unheralded workers without whom our country simply cannot function. A new term was coined – “key workers” – and there was a new appreciation of these people and their roles in our daily lives. 

So, it is heartbreaking to discover that during the crisis there has been a significant increase in abuse, threats and violence towards workers in the retail sector.  

USDAW’s survey during the peak of the first wave showed incidents of abuse had doubled compared to 2019. I have personally received communications from constituents who have been on the receiving end of such abuse – which included cases of actual physical assault – and which have led to increased anxiety and clinical depression. 

The most recent USDAW survey of 2,729 shopworkers across the UK found that 88% had experienced verbal abuse, 61% had been threatened by a customer and a shocking 9% had suffered actual assault. 

The Co-op’s survey of its own workers backs up these results, with one in four of its front line shopworkers reporting violence, abuse and anti-social behaviour, and a 36% increase in these incidents during the first year of the pandemic.  

I believe this situation cannot be allowed to continue, and it appears the public agree. The Co-op also included their customers in their survey, 84% of whom said it was unacceptable for shopworkers to put up with any form of violence or abuse and 82% calling for greater sentencing for offenders. 

On September 22 2020, I raised the increased abuse that shop workers were reporting with The Lord Chancellor. He replied that it was “incumbent on all of us to make sure that sentencing guidelines properly reflect the role that they [the shopworkers] play.” 

I am aware Government ran a public consultation on violence and abuse toward shop staff last year. However, the scope of the original Call for Evidence was limited to asking if there was further non-legislative action which the Government could take 

This was despite their being an almost universal view across the in industry – from trade bodies like British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Co-op Group as well as all the unions, that legislation was necessary because the current laws in England were failing retail workers 

At the end of 2019, the Co-op submitted a Freedom of Information request to all police forces – 75% of whom responded. The results showed that two out of every three incidents reported in Co-op stores across the UK did not even lead to the police attending. Where police did attend, prosecution was unlikely. Usdaw has collected numerous examples of the police and CPS deciding not to prosecute cases, in spite of ample evidence. Members report that decisions on whether to prosecute are based on the value of any thefts or property damage, not on the impact on retail workers. 

In February 2021, over 65 leading retailers and industry bodies wrote to the Prime Minister calling on him to take urgent action to tackle violence and abuse towards retail workers and to call for the creation of a new statutory offence of abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker. 

Sadly, the government declined the opportunity to include legislation to increase protections for these valuable workers in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill this year. Nor did it choose to support my hon. Friend Alex Norris, in his efforts to bring in a private Member’s Bill on assaults on retail workers. 

This has not been the case in Scotland, where cross-party cooperation has led to its retail workers now enjoying a greater protection than those in England. On January 19 this year the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed Daniel Johnson MSP’s member’s bill, the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act, giving greater protection in law to retail workers, particularly where they are providing goods and services that are age restricted.

Every day in 2019, 455 staff were abused or assaulted. It is time for the government to bring forward legislation that offers English retail workers the same protection they deserve, and that are enjoyed by their colleagues in Scotland; protections that have the support of the general public, retail employers and the unions.  

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