Vile abuse of shop staff demands tougher laws; here’s why – Matt Vickers

WE have asked a lot of our retail workers over the past year: not only have we asked them to brave the pandemic, potentially putting themselves at risk from the virus.

Do shop staff need greater protection from the law?

We have asked them to implement the measures that were designed to keep us all safe, such as mask wearing and social distancing. As a result, violence and abuse directed towards retail workers has gone through the roof.

Recently, I met some amazing, passionate ladies who work in retail: Jo who works for the Co-op in Northumberland Kate who works for Primark in Worcester and Jane who works at Tesco in north Wales.

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Do retail staff need greater protection in the wake of the Covid pandemic?

Each told me that since the pandemic began, the number of incidents of abuse had increased noticeably. They told me about the fear and the risks faced by ordinary men and women who go to work in shops in all our communities across the country, echoing the issues I have heard from my own constituents.

I heard from responsible retail businesses as well, such as Morrisons, 
the Co-op, Asda, Sainsbury’s and 
many others. They are investing 
millions of pounds trying to protect their staff and are desperate for more to be done.

A recent survey by the British Retail Consortium has shown that a staggering 455 incidents of abuse and violence are now directed towards retail workers, not each month or each week, but every day – yes, 455 incidents every day.

Men and women go to work – some of them young people or even students in their first job, some of them mothers, trying to manage a job around family life, some of them semi-retired, in the later years of their life, but all trying to earn a living – and are subjected to disgusting abuse as a result.

Matt Vickers is Conservative MP for Stockton South.

Another survey, by USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, found that the top triggers for abusive incidents were enforcing social distancing at 24 per cent, queueing to get into stores at 17 per cent, and wearing face masks at 15 per cent.

Nobody likes having to queue to get into a shop or to wear masks, but that is absolutely no reason to be abusive, threatening or violent to someone who is just doing their job. There is never a reason to do any of those things to someone who is trying to earn a living.

When I was talking to USDAW members, they told me shocking stories about how people have weaponised Covid during the pandemic, spitting at them and threatening to infect them with the virus.

The issue, however, was not created by the pandemic; it pre-dates it. I have heard the terrible stories of people being on the receiving end of vile abuse for having the temerity to do their duty of checking ID when selling drinks, or being assaulted when they step up and try to stop a shoplifter.

The problem is rife. In the words of one retail worker: “I have been dragged out of the store and battered by a group of five men, punched and kicked by a gang of teenagers, followed home after late night shifts, had a knife pulled on me three times, had to wrestle needles out of drug addicts’ hands to prevent harm to colleagues, and that doesn’t include the verbal abuse I receive on a daily basis.”

We need to send a clear message to the people that this is unacceptable. Retail staff must be able to do their jobs without the fear that they will be on the receiving end of abuse or worse at any time throughout their shift.

As well as protecting retail workers, we need to ensure our shops are safe for everyone. They are the hearts of our communities.

I know that putting in greater protections for retail workers does not require a feat of legislative gymnastics. Looking just north of the border, the Scottish Parliament recently passed a Bill, now an Act, put forward by Daniel Johnson MSP.

It is decisive and sends a clear message that these actions will not be tolerated, but it now means that retail staff are better protected in Dumfries than they are 30 miles south in Carlisle.

The Government are correct that there is a wide range of offences to hold offenders to account, but if those offences were a sufficient deterrent, incidents would not continue to rise. We need to look again and do something stronger.

However, we still have the chance to make things better. I hope the Government will work with me. Let us send a message that this Government have retail workers’ backs.

Matt Vickers is Tory MP for Stockton South and led a Parliamentary debate on retail staff – this is an edited version.

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