Usdaw demands new law to protect retail staff from abuse

Elliot Chappell

Shopworkers’ union Usdaw has called for a new law to protect workers from abuse and urged the government to introduce a “simple standalone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public”.

After a survey earlier this year found that incidents of abuse doubled during the pandemic, general secretary Paddy Lillis today said that measures proposed by the government would be “more likely to succeed if backed up with new legislation”.

The organisation has launched a petition that calls for a “specific offence of abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker” and for a penalty that makes clear that “abuse of retail workers is unacceptable”.

Trade union leader Lillis said ministers should take note of the research carried out between March and April and urged the government to “listen to the voices of shopworkers and legislate for stiffer penalties for those who assault workers”.

Commenting today, Lillis said: “We are appalled that violence, threats and abuse have doubled during this national emergency. At a time when we should all be working together to get through this crisis, it is a national disgrace that people working to keep food on the shelves for their local communities are being abused and assaulted.

“Further action is required and that is why we have launched this petition today. Our message is clear, abuse is not part of the job. Life on the frontline of retail is normally pretty tough for many shopworkers and has become much worse during the coronavirus emergency.

“Shopworkers are on the frontline of feeding the country, providing an essential service in very difficult circumstances, working long hours in busy stores, facing abuse from customers and of course concerned they may become infected with Covid-19.

“The safety of our members is absolutely paramount, but they tell us that some of the shopping public are resisting safety measures in stores and can become abusive when asked to queue, maintain social distancing or reminded to wear a face mask.

“Our message to the public is there is no excuse for abusing shopworkers: please treat our members with the respect they deserve.

“In light of the unacceptable increase in abuse of shopworkers, there needs to be urgent action to help protect staff. I urge the government not to dismiss my petition, but listen to the voices of shopworkers and legislate for stiffer penalties for those who assault workers.”

The government published a response to a call for evidence on the issue of abuse towards retail staff late last month, but said it “believes that this issue is one that requires more urgent action than it does a change in the law”.

Lillis added: “They have talked about zero tolerance, but that means very little if it is not backed up by strong actions. The measures the government have agreed are worth trying and we hope that they can make a real difference.

“However they would be much more likely to succeed if backed up with new legislation; a simple standalone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals.

“Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.”

The research carried out by the union, which received responses from 4,928 shopworkers between March 14th and April 17th, showed that 62% of those surveyed were verbally abused, 29% were threatened and 4% assaulted.

The union has explained that these figures are likely an underestimate because the analysis assumed the worker was only assaulted once and because the survey was conducted in mainly larger union organised workplaces, which tend to be safer.

The petition is live on the House of Commons website for the public to sign. If the petition receives 10,000 signatures, the government will issue an official response; with 100,000 signatures, the petition will be considered for debate.

Below is the full text of the petition.

Enact legislation to protect retail workers. This legislation must create a specific offence of abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker. The offence must carry a penalty that acts as a deterrent and makes clear that abuse of retail workers is unacceptable.

Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, retail workers have been spat at, threatened with infection of Coronavirus and physically assaulted. Since the start of the outbreak, the average retail worker has been assaulted, threatened or abused every 6.5 days, more than double the rate of incidents compared to 2019.

Key workers across retail have been undervalued for too long. We need to recognise the valuable contribution of these workers and ensure they are safe whilst undertaking essential work.

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