Why has abuse become ‘just part of the job’ for shop workers?

A woman in an orange fleece and grey shorts walks into a branch of the Co-op. The shop worker standing behind the till asks her to follow the one-way system, a fairly new rule in this early stage of lockdown.

Even on the grainy CCTV footage, the customer’s rage is obvious. She flings herself at the perspex screen in front of the till – the staff member clasps her hands to her mouth – before storming over to the wine shelves.

Another team member reaches for her, then leaps back as the woman starts shattering bottles on the floor. After flooding the aisle with red wine and bottle-green glass, she strides over to the counter, drums on the perspex one last time, then walks out.

This incident, which happened in May 2020, is less unusual than you’d think.

According to a survey by trade union Usdaw, nine in 10 shop staff were threatened and six in 10 were verbally abused last year. One in 10 was physically assaulted.

“Many people are coming to accept this as just part of the job,” a letter signed by retail bosses warns.

Of course, the situation has become inflamed by the Covid-19 pandemic. One business recorded 990 incidents in the week after face masks became compulsory. Another blamed its 600 per cent increase in violence on the new Covid restructions.

All shop workers need to do, some believe, is hang on until 21 June. Others are less hopeful.

READ MOREUsdaw urges customers to respect shopworkers

“We don’t believe abuse of shop workers will stop after the pandemic,” says an Usdaw spokesperson.

Covid restrictions haven’t been the most common cause of violence in shops: the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) says theft sparks most confrontations, while the British Retail Consortium (BRC) points the finger at age verification.

Even before coronavirus, around 400 retail workers every day faced abuse at work – it won’t all be over by the summer.

Trade organisations, like Usdaw, have called for the government to make abusing retail staff a statutory offence.

They’re not the only ones. Iceland, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, the Co-op, Aldi and Spar bosses have called for the same measure, along with three of the Big 4: Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, and Asda.

Earlier this year, a law which criminalised threatening, abusing or assaulting shop staff was passed by the Scottish Parliament with support from 90 per cent of MSPs.

“Retail colleagues will be protected in Dumfries, but not in Carlisle – why can’t this legislation be replicated in the rest of the UK?” BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson wondered at the time.

The British government has resisted calls to introduce a similar law for shop workers in Carlisle, or indeed anywhere else.

“The government continues to say that they will wait and see on new legislation,” a Usdaw spokesperson complains. “We don’t see any need to wait when we have provided consistent and compelling evidence over many years.”

READ MORECo-op introduces forensic spray to stop attacks on staff

The government disagrees. It points out that abuse of retail employees is covered by existing legislation, and argues the real is with the “general lack of faith” in the police.

Research shows six in 10 convenience store workers are dissatisfied with the police’s response to Covid rule-flouting and repeat offenders in shops.

Giving evidence to the home affairs select committee, one store owner described how two men yelled racist abuse at a staff member before smashing up the till. The police didn’t arrive until the next day, when they explained that the incident wasn’t an emergency.

No doubt the thin blue line – thinner now after an austere diet of budget cuts – finds itself overstretched and understaffed.

But there’s an attitude problem as well. Under half of PCCs elected in 2016 made any reference to business crime when they outlined their policing manifestos.

However, some experts believe that legislation could galvanise the police response to retail crime.

“A separate offence would ensure that the statistics and data around incidents are improved so that appropriate resources can be allocated,” argues BRC assistant director Graham Wynn.

“Crimes of abuse and violence would be more likely to be reported, and therefore more than the current per cent per cent of incidents would be prosecuted.”

He points to the Emergency Workers Act of 2018, designed to ensure that crimes against emergency workers are properly investigated. If emergency workers should be protected, then why not essential workers?

How effective the Scottish legislation is remains to be seen. If anyone had expected a silver bullet, then that hope was quickly and violently shattered when a gang destroyed part of Saleem’s Licensed Grocers in Glasgow earlier this year.

READ MOREUsdaw: 75% of retail workers “felt anxious” going into work last year

As the government and campaigners wrangle over legislation, most shops have been forced to shell out for extra security costs during the pandemic.

Body-cameras, perspex screens, alarms and security guards don’t come cheap: the average convenience store has spent over £3000 on security over the past year.

Susan Connolly, of Connolly Spar in Wiltshire, spent £10,000 on a new CCTV system. “We are prepared for when we have to use this,” she says. “Not if.”

Just last month, the Co-op equipped its guards with a new forensic spray to help the police track down criminals. Yet many small grocers don’t have this luxury.

“As an independent retailer I haven’t got the funds like the big supermarkets to employ a security guard at the front door,” Coventry store owner Paul Cheema told the BBC. “You’d be talking, three, four, five hundred pounds a week.”

Even if you can afford security guards, they’re not immune to retail violence themselves.

Recently, in one South London shop, a customer challenged the security guard to a fight before threatening to return with a knife. The police were called but never arrived.

Covid-19 has aggravated the situation for many shop workers, but a vaccine can be only one part of this cure.

There’s also legislation, police attitudes and funding, private security, and above all social behaviours to consider.

The problems facing shop workers have become so entrenched, with so many roots, that they’ve become normalised. Yet something needs to be done. It’s the one thing that everyone agrees on.

“It has been a terrible year for our members,” Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis says. “Abuse should never be just a part of the job.”

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