Retail employees could be given further legal protections against violence and abuse under legislation being discussed in Parliament.
On 9 October Labour/Co-op MP Alex Norris introduced a 10-minute rule motion that calls for attacks on retail staff at work to be treated in court as ‘aggravated’ assaults. A second reading of the bill is due to take place on 23 November. Only a minority of private members’ bills become law.
Presenting the Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill, Mr Norris said: “The Bill would mean that future assaults on workers in the retail sector are treated as aggravated assaults, and that the perpetrators of the violence we often see our shop workers subjected to will receive greater punishment. This protection would act to prevent further assaults and properly punish those who seek to behave in such a manner.”
The bill follows a recent Populus poll commissioned by the Co-operative Party, which shows that 85% of the British public believe “the government owes a duty of care to shop workers who enforce important laws restricting the sale of certain items like alcohol, acid and knives”.
The poll, which included 1,095 adults, revealed that the 41% of people would support a tough new law to increase criminal sentences for anyone convicted of using threats or violence against a shop worker. Another 31% support the idea of reversing police cuts and putting more officers on the high street.
Mr Norris told Co-op News: “I heard from local retail workers about their experiences of aggressive and violent situations. These include the use of physical force and threats of very serious violence. They should not have to put up with this at work. The local response since I introduced the Bill has been very positive too, there is clear public support on this issue.”
Asked what retailers themselves could do to help staff deal with such situations, Mr Norris said: “We should be proud that retail co-operatives are among those at the forefront of improving security for their staff and making it clear to customers that violence and abuse are never acceptable.
“But, in addition to the responsibilities that retailers take extremely seriously, violence against shop workers – particularly when provoked by a refusal to sell restricted products – is a problem for us all. Effectively policing the sale of dozens of restricted products is an important civic responsibility that too often goes unrecognised, and the law must do much more to reflect that.
“If we, as a society, ask shop workers to put themselves at the forefront of enforcing laws on our behalf, the least we can do is guarantee that we have their backs, just as we do already for emergency services.”
Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which boasts 433,000 members nationwide, welcomed the bill. A recent survey by the union found that two thirds of shop workers were verbally abused last year, 42% were threatened and there were more than 265 assaults every day.
General secretary Paddy Lillis said: “Abuse, threats and violence against shop workers is a growing problem and a day-to-day reality for far too many workers employed in shops, supermarkets and convenience stores across the UK. We are grateful to Alex Norris for raising the issues.”
Mr Lillis, who spoke at the Co-op Party’s annual conference this month and praised its efforts to tackle retail crime, added: “What is clear, from talking to, consulting with and surveying our members, is that abuse and violence against shop workers is on the rise. Usdaw’s annual survey of shop workers shows a 25% increase in violence. The British Retail Consortium reported a doubling of violence in its annual retail crime survey.
“There is an epidemic of abuse and violence against the people who serve us in the shops. Shop workers are members of our communities, they are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our next door neighbours. They deserve better. They deserve to be treated with respect. They deserve to be protected from violence.
“Usdaw is bringing the everyday accounts of shop workers who experience abuse, threats and violence to the attention of MPs and policymakers. We need the government to listen and we need action. We need a specific offence introduced for assaulting a shop worker who is simply enforcing the legal rules and regulations. Even in this age of austerity, it is unacceptable for police forces to be asking shop workers to detain thieves.”