Co-op Food CEO wants action against attacks on shop workers

The Group is echoing calls from Usdaw, the British Retail Consortium and industry staff to tackle violence, threats and abuse

Stronger protection for shop workers is needed in the face of rising attacks, says Co-op Food CEO Jo Whitfield.

The Group’s figures for the first quarter of 2019 show 2,500 incidents of verbal abuse and anti-social behaviour in its stores, with 600 violent incidents over the same period. One in four violent incidents involved a knife, gun or other weapon.

Ms Whitfield has been retail chief executive since 2017

Ms Whitfield called on the government to create a new offence, which would carry higher penalties for attacks where the shop worker is enforcing the law on age-restricted sales, such as cigarettes or alcohol.

And she wants a review of existing sentences handed down to attackers, new guidelines on sentencing for such offences and a drastic increase in police resources to help protect communities and shop workers.

She said: “More needs to be done and the issue needs to be about the human cost, the physical and emotional impact to shop workers and their families, not the cost to business.

“What frustrates me most is that this is talked about as a crime against a business, but it’s not. We can replace stock, but it is not as easy to repair the physical and emotional wellbeing of a colleague, whose confidence is shaken and who feels afraid to come in to work because of rising levels of violence and abuse in our communities.

“We must take action and work together to re-think our approach to this issue in order to ensure people feel safe when they turn up for work.”

As part of its efforts to improve security in stores, last year the Group launched the Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities Campaign. The retailer has invested over £70m – and committed to match this over the next three years – in new security technology, including remote monitored CCTV; communication headset devices for all front-line colleagues; and the targeted deployment of SmartWater Fog Cannons. The Group is also working to raise awareness.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) has been campaigning for keeping employees safe at work. Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: “Violence, threats and abuse against workers are amongst the great scourges of our society. The statistics are shocking and show that urgent action is required.

“Usdaw’s own survey revealed that, on average, a UK shop worker can end up on the wrong side of a verbal or physical assault nearly once a fortnight. Our message is clear, abuse is not a part of the job.”

He added: “Life on the frontline of retail can be pretty tough for many shop workers and there is still a lot to do to help protect them. We launched our Freedom From Fear Campaign in the face of growing concerns among retail staff about violence, threats and abuse. As part of the campaign, we work closely with the Co-op to promote respect and we welcome their investment in staff safety. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, added: “Violence against employees remains one of the most pressing issues retailers face, yet our Crime Survey once again shows we have seen an increase in the overall number of incidents. Every day, 115 people are attacked at work. Such crimes harm not just hardworking employees, but also on their families and communities. No one should go to work fearing threats and abuse.

“The spiralling cost of retail crime – both in losses and the cost of prevention – are a huge burden to a retail sector that is already weighed down by the twin challenges of skyrocketing business costs and Brexit uncertainty.”

On 5 April the government launched a call for evidence from organisations and individuals about the problem of violence and abuse toward shop staff in England and Wales. The consultation is open until 11pm on 28 June.

Usdaw has produced a condensed version with the questions most relevant to shop workers, whose answers will be used by Usdaw for its own submission to the consultation.