The Tories must work with Labour to protect retail workers from abuse

2020 saw a spike in abuse, threats and violence against retail workers. But whilst the Tories shockingly fail to get a grip of the crisis, Labour has a ready-made solution to deter offenders, break the cycle of abuse and deliver justice to victims.

There is a growing epidemic in the heart of our communities, one of abuse and violence against retail workers who are the backbone of this country and who kept our country moving and our families fed during the pandemic.

If you are in any doubt as to the scale of the problem across the country, last year research conducted by Usdaw found that 88% of retail workers experienced verbal abuse, almost two thirds were threatened by a customer, and 300,000 out of a three million strong workforce were assaulted. A staggering rise on 2019 levels, equating to 455 incidents of violence and abuse against shopworkers each day.

Only 6% of these incidents result in prosecution. Little wonder a quarter of cases go unreported altogether. The situation is shocking and untenable. This is a crisis with an actual solution available to tackle and deter unacceptable behaviour and violence and deliver justice for victims. Yet time and time again, the Conservative government fails to act to protect vital frontline retail workers who have been at the forefront of the pandemic helping serve our communities.

Labour has put the option for real progress on the table – an amendment to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, creating a standalone offence and a 12-month prison sentence for abuse, threats, and violence against retail workers.

We are ready to do what is necessary because nobody should be treated with disrespect – spat at, bitten, grabbed, sexually harassed, or discriminated against – at work. Nobody should have to mentally prepare before a shift to face abuse or be forced to take self-defence classes because the law and criminal justice system fails to adequately protect them.

Retail workers should not have to wear body cameras in fear of abuse or being let down by authorities, nor should they have to take time off on the sick because of the trauma or injuries sustained in violent attacks. Yet they do.

The omission of protecting retail workers in the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill is a damning failure of the UK government to listen to voices from the frontline, to recognise the exponential rise in abuse of retail staff and to protect them.

Heroes like Ian Robson from Gateshead, who was dragged and punched repeatedly with a knuckle-duster after asking a customer to wear a facemask. A shopworker in Northamptonshire had part of their ear bitten off and often have needles pulled out on them in store. Another in West Yorkshire was spat in the face, headbutted and – while visibly pregnant – repeatedly knocked by a customer with a trolley and chased down aisles.

Retail workers deserve dignity and respect at work. Labour MPs past and present have campaigned to improve the conditions for millions of retail staff to make that so. But all attempts have been thwarted by consecutive Conservative governments, including the incumbent government, which has maintained that “it does not consider that the case is yet made for a change in the law”.

The same government consultation that reads like a charge sheet of Conservatives failings over the past decade, from mishandling the criminal justice system, cuts to police funding, to a gross failure to bring forward legislation such as the long awaited victims’ bill.

Time and again, we hear warm words and grand gestures but witness very little action. It’s time the Conservative government stop letting offenders off the hook and work with Labour to end this epidemic of violence by ensuring workers are protected and the system delivers justice for victims.

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