Law needed to protect shopworkers from violence and abuse - Usdaw's Paddy Lillis

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, argues for a shopworkers' law.

Picture: Brian Eyre.

“Threatened with a used needle”. “Annoyed customers taking their frustration out on us”. “General threats of violence on a regular basis”. “Attacked after ID check”.

“He stole my mask, I asked for it back, he kicked me and ripped my social distancing T-Shirt”. “A man spat in my face and threatened me”. “Customer asked if I was stupid when I made a mistake on the till”. “Being called names and threats of violence”.

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These are some of the comments Yorkshire shopworkers shared when responding to Usdaw’s annual Freedom from Fear survey.

It is heart-breaking to hear these testimonies from those who deserve far more respect than they receive. Our latest survey results clearly show the scale of the appalling violence, threats and abuse faced by shopworkers and demonstrate the need for a ‘protection of shopworkers’ law.

It has been a terrible year for our members, with over 90 per cent of shopworkers suffering abuse, more than two-thirds threatened and one in seven assaulted. Our members are saying loud and clear that enough is enough, abuse should never be just a part of the job. Action to protect shop workers is needed.

Since 2002, Usdaw’s Freedom from Fear Campaign has been working each year to highlight the need for respect for shopworkers. We have organised campaigns to get the attention of the public, worked with employers to highlight the problem of abuse against shopworkers, while campaigning with politicians, police forces and the Home Office.

Despite these efforts, abuse against retail workers has continued to increase. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Usdaw’s survey showed that 68 per cent of retail workers were abused as part of their job and these statistics are matched by similar surveys from the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores.

Unfortunately, the situation appears to have got worse.

In the first months of the Covid crisis we carried out a survey of members on their experiences and found that incidents against retail staff had doubled. The Covid-secure social distancing measures put in place to protect the shopping public had become flashpoints for abuse directed against shop staff.

The vast majority of the public have been very supportive and acknowledged the role of shopworkers. One positive from the crisis has been that retail workers have finally, and quite rightly, been recognised as key workers. Most of the public have supported shopworkers as they implement social distancing rules in our shops.

Unfortunately, however, a small minority of the public have abused and turned on shop staff. The behaviour of that anti-social minority must be tackled. Workers in retail must be respected, valued and supported. We need to make sure the message goes out loud and clear – abuse is not part of the job.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report, published this year, followed a lengthy inquiry that heard evidence from across the retail industry including Usdaw members. Many reported personal harrowing accounts of the violence, threats and abuse they have received simply as a result of going to work.

The report identified that violence and abuse towards shopworkers is becoming endemic in British society and the policing response is failing to match the scale of the problem. The committee called for urgent improvements in reporting and responding to retail crime, along with a new criminal offence to send a powerful and long overdue message that assaults on retail workers will not be tolerated.

Last month a new protection of shopworkers law came into force in Scotland, but we are deeply disappointed that the UK Government has resisted a similar measure in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. When retail employers, leading retail bodies, the Home Affairs Select Committee and the shopworkers’ trade union jointly call for legislation, it is time for the Government to listen.

This is a hugely important issue for our members. They are deeply concerned that the current high levels of abuse will become the norm unless the Government takes urgent and meaningful action. The Government has promised to bring forward an amendment to their flagship policing bill in the House of Lords and we urge them to keep their word.