Abuse experienced by shopworkers has risen by a quarter in the past year according to a survey conducted by retail union Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.
In 2016 around two thirds of those working in shops were verbally abused, with 40% claiming that they had been threatened whilst at work, an increase of 38% on the previous 12 months.
Some of the incidents reported by participants range from verbal abuse dished out by disgruntled customers, to physical assaults and threatening behaviour involving the use of weapons. In one example, a frozen gammon was thrown at a store employee by an irate member of the public. Other cases include threats of physical violence being made against staff, with some even being followed home after work.
Shoplifting and refusal to sell age restricted goods are often flashpoints, although workers are also commonly targeted when they are most vulnerable for example when working alone, handling money, taking deliveries or locking up.
Combining this with recent news that crime in England and Wales is rising year on year, against a backdrop of police cuts, presents a very worrying picture indeed. It appears that shoplifters are also becoming increasingly violent and the number store thefts is up by 11%.
John Hannett, Usdaw general secretary, said: “Violence, threats and abuse against workers is one of the great scourges of our society. The statistics are shocking and show that urgent action is required.
He continues: “Many UK workers are on the frontline of dealing with the public and that can mean they end up on the wrong side of a verbal or physical assault.”
As the UK’s largest private sector, retail employs over 3 million workers in Britain. With many companies looking to slash costs, more and more roles are involving lone working in some form – potentially putting employees at greater risk.
For this reason, a growing number of retailers are issuing their workforce with personal safety alarms to provide a simple and efficient way for them to seek help. Devices such as Skyguard’s MySOS link up to a monitoring centre where Controllers are on hand 24/7 to offer assistance if required. Recordings can also be made through the unit, which in a number of cases has provided vital evidence leading to the prosecution of offenders.
Despite retailers introducing these safety measures, if Usdaw’s findings are a sign of things to come then more must be done to improve safety.
John Hannett believes the answer is new legislation being introduced, he says: “It is time for the Government to act by providing stiffer penalties for those who assault workers; a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals.”
However, with Brexit looming on the horizon and police budgets being increasingly stretched, whether this will become a reality any time soon remains to be seen.