No excuse for attacks on shop staff; we must take a stand – Jayne Dowle

IF you can’t find that exotic alphonso mango in the supermarket, please don’t take out your frustrations on my son.

Supermarket staff are suffering from a significant increase in physical and verbal abuse.
Supermarket staff are suffering from a significant increase in physical and verbal abuse.

He’s only doing his job. It’s not his fault that we’re (still) in the middle of a global pandemic and deliveries of even basic items, never mind mangos, may be subject to disruption and delay.

He’s working today. Like millions of retail and food chain employees, Jack will be playing his tiny part in keeping the national cogs turning whilst the world rocks on its axis.

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Stacking shelves, helping customers and, now he’s 18, taking his first steps on the till, Jack loves his part-time job and is very proud to wear what he calls “the green and black”. This might give you a clue which supermarket he works for.

Action is needed to detr customers from abusing shop staff, says Jayne Dowle.

His sense of humour has certainly kept him going. The other day we fell into conversation about staff training. I was surprised, I said, that he’d not been obliged to attend a string of training courses by now, given that he’s been working for a major retailer for more than 12 months and today’s emphasis on inclusion and equality in the workplace.

“There’s only one training course we’d need to attend,” he said, with a raised eyebrow. “It would be the one where we learn how to detain a shoplifter without them trying to sue you for assault.” I smiled, but really, it’s not funny at all. He regularly has to detain shoplifters, which I’m sure wasn’t in the job description. Neither was crowd control, nor Covid marshalling.

It’s clear that the pandemic and all its attendant frustrations and desperations have made an already perilous situation for shop workers worse. The British Retail Consortium says there are 155,000 documented incidents of violence or verbal abuse against staff each year.

And a survey of its members by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) found that the average shop worker was assaulted, threatened or abused once a week. This is all worrying enough.

What more can be done to improve the safety of supermarket staff?

Factor in the pressurised experience which supermarket shopping has become this year, and the very real presence of destitution affecting so many, and it’s not difficult to see how matters have escalated.

As British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson says, the thousands of attacks on retail workers are not merely statistics but that they represent “real people who needlessly bear the cost of retail crime”.

One of the saddest things I saw this year was the face of a young man employed as a supermarket security guard in the town centre, spat on and racially abused for doing his job.

This is all why Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford Labour MP Yvette Cooper, is launching a new inquiry to explore the police response to incidents of violence and abuse experienced by retail staff.

As part of this, the committee has launched an online public survey – open until January 15 – to give individuals who have experienced aggressive incidents the opportunity to explain what happened.

The inquiry then intends to examine barriers to the reporting of incidents of violence or abuse, and victim satisfaction with the action afterwards taken by police and employers. Crucially, it will also explore whether a new criminal offence related to aggravating assaults against retail workers is required.

“The increase in reported attacks and abuse against shop workers during the Covid-19 pandemic is appalling and unacceptable,” says Cooper. “No one should feel unsafe at their place of work and there are no circumstances where such behaviour should be tolerated. The crisis has shown how important shop workers are as key workers – keeping vital services going during difficult times.”

Only last week I witnessed six of Jack’s colleagues trying to hold down a particularly ferocious shoplifter, who was thrashing out in all directions. It took them 10 minutes to restrain him and kick him out. These days, unless someone is seriously hurt in the fracas, the managers don’t even bother to call the police.

The thought of my big daft lad tackling violent individuals fills me with apprehension. Jack might be six foot four, but he’s never had a proper fight in his life.

At the start of the year, I’d listen in amazement when he’d come home and tell us how he’d had to help deal with provocation. Now it’s just part of the job, like stacking peas or showing old ladies where the jam is.

It’s one of those things we’ve learned to take for granted, just as we accept that our local store doesn’t sell big bottles of gin or large packs of minced beef, because apparently, these are top priorities for a quick steal. However, just because something has become accepted doesn’t mean it is acceptable. And this applies, first and foremost, to the safety of all supermarket staff – my son included.

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