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Should There Be a Law to Protect Shop Workers?

15 February 2019
 February 15, 2019

As assaults on shop workers have reportedly risen by more than half in under 2 years, retailers are calling for greater protection for their staff, with some in the sector suggesting assaults on retail employees should be made an aggravated offence.

The Commercial Victimisation Survey conducted by the Home Office showed that in 2017-18 there were a staggering 8.1 million incidents of assault and verbal abuse towards retail workers. This figure is up significantly from the previous year in which 5.2 million incidents were recorded.

Trade union, USDAW (Union of Shop, Distributed and Allied Workers) are campaigning for the creation of a specific offence for assaults on those working within the retail sector.

A USDAW insider said: “Everyone knows if you assault a police officer you get a stiffer sentence. We want something similar for shop workers.”

Ministers had previously dismissed the idea but are said to be reconsidering given the recent rises. Crime Minister, Victoria Atkins has ordered a probe to establish the reasons behind the increase and identify those areas and types of retailers most at risk.

Speaking after chairing a meeting with the National Retail Crime Steering Group, whose members include the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), Atkins commented: “No-one should be subject to violence and abuse in their workplace and I have every sympathy for retail staff who have been the victims of these appalling acts just for doing their jobs.”

What are the biggest dangers to retail staff?

Lone Worker in a ShopRefusal to sell age-restricted goods such as alcohol and cigarettes are common flashpoints that can lead to violence, as can challenging thieves. With retailers increasingly being targeted for the cash stored on their premises, USDAW are reporting that as many as 230 shop workers are being assaulted every day. There are also suggestions of a link between police cuts and the increase in thefts and attacks.

It has been claimed that some shop assistants have little option but to take matters into their own hands to defend themselves against attackers. One shop keeper in Luton was forced to fend off an attack by throwing chili powder at armed robbers who tried to steal from his store.

USAW General Secretary, Paddy Lillis said: “The need for action is undeniable. Life on the retail front line can be tough and there is still a lot to do to help protect them.”

Lone working increases vulnerability

The increasing consumer demand for convenience has also lead to a growth in the number of smaller stores and shops with longer opening hours. At the same time, many retailers are tightening their belts and reducing staffing numbers which has contributed to a rise in lone working. Should an incident occur, these workers are at greater risk and a growing number of opportunist criminals appear to be exploiting this vulnerability.

So should assaulting a retail worker be a specific offence?

ACS Chief Executive, James Lowman said the criminal justice system should “send a clear message that violence and verbal abuse is not acceptable.”

Although no law will irradiate this issue, creating a new offence with harsher penalties may go some way to deterring potential offenders.

It is likely however, that any proposed changes to the law will take some time to come into effect. In the meantime, retailers are advised to review their own safety policies and put in place procedures to lessen the risks to employees. For example, lone working should not be allowed where goods that are deemed ‘high-risk’ are on sale and tasks such as locking up and carrying cash should always be allocated to more than one member of staff.

For staff at particular risk, personal alarms are also recommended as these offer discreet protection to those out on the shop floor who may not be able to access panic buttons under the counter.

Employers have a Duty of Care to their staff and must do all they can to protect them. It’s clear that anything that can be done to deter violence and reduce assaults would be welcomed by retail staff and employers alike.