Abuse of shopworkers is rising: we need to up our game

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With Usdaw’s annual survey showing abuse against shopworkers is higher than pre-pandemic levels, it’s vital that government, retail employers, police and the courts work more closely together to make shops safer for staff.

It is encouraging to see that the record levels of abuse that shopworkers experienced throughout the pandemic has reduced. Despite this, reported verbal abuse, threats of violence and actual physical assaults are all higher than in any year before Covid. This continues a worrying six-year upward trend.

In 2016, half of retail workers reported receiving abuse, this has now risen to around three-quarters.

Paddy Lillis: "Abuse, threats and violence are not issues that can be resolved by the industry alone."

Usdaw has conducted an annual survey of shopworkers since 2007. This year’s, based on 7,755 responses, shows that the high levels of abuse and violence recorded in the 2019 survey have unfortunately been exceeded, with 74 per cent of respondents suffering verbal abuse, 49 per cent were threatened and nearly eight per cent were physically assaulted during last year.

Comparatively, in 2019 the figures were 67 per cent abused, 42 per cent threatened and five per cent physically assaulted. Physical assaults included being spat or coughed at, punched or kicked and attacks with weapons, most commonly knives or needles.

An analysis of the results by gender reveal that women were more likely to be the victim of verbal abuse: 79 per cent of women against 72 per cent of men. However, men were more likely to be physically assaulted: 10 per cent of men against seven per cent of women.

A poster from Usdaw's 'Freedom from Fear' campaign.

The top two triggers for these incidents are ‘theft from shops’ (31 per cent) and ‘age restricted sales’ (16 per cent). These are followed by ‘lack of stock’ (11 per cent), ‘drink and drugs’ (10 per cent) and ‘queuing’ (nine per cent). References to incidents triggered by shoplifting are not only higher than 2019 but also more than double that of 2016.

‘Abuse is not part of the job’

Usdaw is clear that abuse is not part of the job and it is unacceptable that retail workers are being abused, threatened and assaulted on a regular basis. The union has been working with politicians, police forces, employers and employer associations to tackle this issue. Our survey found that the top three things shopworkers want from their employer are: ‘more management support’ (40 per cent); ‘banning offenders from the store’ (16 per cent); and ‘more security staff’ (14 per cent).

Our survey also found that nearly a third (30 per cent) are considering changing their job and over four-in-ten (41 per cent) feel anxious about work, all because of high levels of verbal abuse, threats and assaults. No one should feel afraid to go to work, but our evidence shows that too many retail workers are. Faced with such high levels of aggression from customers, it is of little surprise that so many are considering changing their job to escape the abuse.

The potential cost for retail employers to recruit, train and induct new staff adds to the total cost of retail crime at £1.76 billion in 2021/22, as reported by the British Retail Consortium. £953 million was lost to customer theft, with eight million incidents of theft over the year. Retailers also spent £715 million on crime prevention in 2021/22.

The top three things shopworkers want from their employer are: ‘more management support’ (40 per cent); ‘banning offenders from the store’ (16 per cent); and ‘more security staff’ (14 per cent). Photograph: iStock

While some costs are critical in protecting colleagues, they also contribute to higher prices for customers by pushing up retailers’ operating costs.

The Protection of Workers Act came into force in Scotland in August 2021 and hundreds of cases are being investigated by Police Scotland. In England and Wales, retail workers have been given some protection through the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which makes violence against public facing workers a statutory aggravating factor for sentencing. However, possibly because of significant backlogs in the courts system, we are not aware of any instances of the provisions yet being utilised.

Pilot projects – ‘encouraging’ signs

There are encouraging pilot projects with some police forces to improve reporting of incidents and to use the evidence to deal with prolific offenders. Our survey also shows an encouraging increase in reporting of incidents to employers.

Overall, 59 per cent of respondents said that the incident was reported to their employer, 14 per cent higher than the same figures from 2019. When it comes to physical assaults, only eight per cent of incidents went unreported compared to 18 per cent in 2019.

There appears to have been an increased effort by employers to make people aware that abuse will not be tolerated. In some stores managers are being more robust in the support of their workers. However, shopworkers still lack overall confidence in the ability of the system to give them the protection they need. So much more needs to be done.

The government must provide the co-ordination needed to turn pilot projects into common practice and to ensure that retail employers, police and the courts work together to make shops safer. Nearly half of our members are still not confident that reporting an incident will make a difference.

Abuse, threats and violence are not issues that can be resolved by the industry alone. Usdaw continues to call for: nationwide initiatives that support the complete rehabilitation of offenders; investment in community-led policing initiatives; locally-led programmes to guarantee worker safety; and a properly funded justice system to tackle the backlog and deliver victims of violence and abuse the justice they deserve.

Voices from the frontline
Some of the comments shopworkers shared when responding to Usdaw’s survey:

  • “Spat at by an unhappy customer and verbally abused.
  • Called the ‘c word’ for not opening an extra till. Called names told to ‘f’ off.”
  • “Kettle thrust in my face. Curling tongs hurled at me. Can of Red Bull thrown over my head. Called every profanity known.”
  • “Customer tried to punch me in the face but there was a screen between us so he cut his hand.”
  • “Shoplifter threatens to put a bottle of wine over my head if I stop him going out with a basket of meat.”
  • “Incidents of physical abuse or threats of violence have been from thieves stopped as they pass through the checkouts.”
  • “Been called stupid and said I need to be better at my job. Hit with a walking stick. Threats to come back after shifts.”
  • “Customer became violent and aggressive when I asked for ID and refused the sale as he couldn’t provide valid ID for buying alcohol.”
  • “Hit with trolley. Sworn at. Knife was put on my throat to open till. I was threatened with a needle.”
  • “Refused petrol was called a fat pr**k. Tried to stop my colleague being assaulted got punched in my face.”
  • “Sexual harassment from a customer. Shouting, swearing and vile name calling e.g. ‘b**ch’ and ‘slut’.”

Full Usdaw annual survey: usdaw.org.uk/FFFReport2022

Usdaw’s Freedom From Fear campaign works to prevent violence, threats and abuse against retail workers: usdaw.org.uk/Campaigns/Freedom-From-Fear


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