Government accused of ‘dragging its feet’ as shop worker abuse rises

20 September 2021, 08:28 AM
  • Retailers and industry groups are calling for more protections for workers as reports of abuse grew during the pandemic
Government accused of ‘dragging its feet’ as shop worker abuse rises

Food and drink retail workers are experiencing more abuse from customers during the pandemic. A report by legal firm Foot Anstey said the number of grocery workers suffering abuse rose 36% due to recent stock shortages after mistreatment had already been on the rise during the pandemic.

The survey found that 95% of respondents noticed more verbal harassment since the start of the pandemic, and a further one in five saw more physical harassment at work, while one in 20 saw more sexual harassment. The main causes for abuse were masks (57%), social distancing (45%) and limits on customer numbers in store (38%).

“Retail workers told us they felt there were not enough laws in place to protect them,” said Foot Anstey partner Nathan Peacey. “It is essential that existing laws are enforced, or new ones brought in, to support retailers’ own protocols, guidance and response measures and support those on the retail frontline [to] feel safer and supported.”

In August, ground-breaking new legislation came into force in Scotland to protect shop workers. The rules created a new offence for situations where a retail worker is assaulted, threatened or abused while engaging in their work.

One fine food shop’s experience

While many fine food independents have not experienced problems implementing mask or social distancing rules with their regular customers, Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli told Speciality Food his shop has had experience with ‘trolling’ over the last seven years. “We have come to realise that trolls, or people who are best described as keyboard warriors, are jealous or as is the often the case are people who have an over-blown sense of entitlement and zero empathy to realise or appreciate what their comments will have to owners and their staff,” he says.

Asked whether shop workers in England and Wales would benefit from a new law like Scotland’s targeting offenders, he said it would be “very welcome”.

“There needs to be a way to remind the public that they are dealing with human beings. Too many people view businesses as faceless corporates, whereas in fact where independent retailers are concerned, they are abusing people who often sacrifice a lot to deliver the best possible service they can,” Mark said.

Government ‘drags its feet’

The Home Affairs Committee recently published a report in which it called for urgent improvements in reporting and responding to retail crime, along with a new criminal offence. The government issued its response to the report on 9th September, saying that it would “consider an amendment in the Lords if appropriate”.

NFRN national president Stuart Reddish called for more urgent action. “Incidents of verbal abuse and physical attacks have become a daily occurrence for millions of shop workers and increased dramatically during the Covid pandemic,” he said. “How many more will suffer the same fate while the government continues to drag its feet and merely commits to ‘considering’ a change in the law?

“Other frontline workers, such as the emergency services and customs officers, are quite rightly given extra protection by the law in recognition of the service they provide to the public and the responsibility placed upon them. Shop workers are just as much in the firing line and deserve the same level of protection from the law and an appropriate response from the police,” he continued.

According to Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the retail sector union Usdaw, 90% of shopworkers suffer abuse, more than two-thirds are threatened, and one in seven are assaulted. “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 and bring forward the amendment to their policing bill as promised,” he said. “We urge the Government to keep to their word and ensure that the measure they bring forward is substantial and delivers much needed protections.”

The British Retail Consortium has also added its voice to those calling for tougher laws. “We need legislation in England and Wales to protect our hard-working retail colleagues,” said CEO Helen Dickinson. “It makes no sense nor is it remotely fair that people who work in retail are better protected in Dundee than they are in Doncaster. The current laws simply do not go far enough. Most offenders go unpunished, while victims and their families are left traumatised.

“We cannot let another year to go by with rising crime statistics and a mounting pile of deplorable stories of violence and abuse in shops,” Helen said. “The Government needs to act, and deliver on its commitment to protect retail workers.”

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