Usdaw’s annual respect week, 14 - 20 November, is when the union’s reps and members organise awareness events as part of the Freedom from Fear Campaign, which seeks to prevent verbal abuse, threats and violent attacks at work.
Interim results of Usdaw’s Freedom From Fear Survey show that nearly half of shopworkers are verbally abused and a quarter are threatened. The survey continues and full results will be released in the New Year.
John Hannett – Usdaw General Secretary says: “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. 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.
“Life on the frontline of retail can be pretty tough for many shopworkers 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 amongst retail staff about violence, threats and abuse. The campaign works with employers to promote respect and make shops safer for staff and customers alike.
“All too often criminals who assault staff are not even sent to court, those who are can receive derisory sentences. In other cases, where the offender isn’t even charged, victims are left feeling that no one cares that they were assaulted. That can lead to staff not reporting incidents and our strong message is ‘report it, to sort it’.
“So there needs to be action to help protect staff. 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. On four separate occasions Parliament has had the opportunity to toughen the law to better protect shopworkers, but each time the Tories and Liberals have combined to block Labour’s attempts.
“This week our members are out campaigning on high streets, in shopping centres and stores; talking to the public and asking them to ‘keep their cool and respect shopworkers’. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected.”
Survey responses: As part of Usdaw’s survey of violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers, respondents have the opportunity to feedback their experiences, here are some examples:
Theft is often a trigger for violence. A member in Northwich reported that, “I was attacked at work when I caught a customer stealing – they tried to strangle me.” A shopworker from the Midlands said, “I was punched by a customer when trying to stop a robbery.” A shopworker from Bridlington who is verbally abused almost weekly and the victim of physical abuse at least once a month said, “I often have to deal with all shoplifters. I’ve been smacked, head butted, spat at and kicked.”
Spitting at members whilst they are trying to do their job has been highlighted including a shopworker from Wellingborough who said, “I have been physically assaulted and pushed to ground. Verbally threatened and spat at.” A member from Birmingham who simply said, “spat at by a customer.” In Eccles an Usdaw member reported, “a woman returned an item which was clearly used, I refused the refund, she turned violent and spat at me.”
Customers often throw goods at shopworkers. A member in Hornchurch who has been threatened several times in the last 12 months said, “I was spat at and had a basket chucked at me.” Another member working in Cheadle says, “Staff are shouted at for issues out of our control, money and clothes are often thrown at us.” An Usdaw member from Leeds simply said, “Customer threw a toaster at me.” Whilst another Leeds shopworker said, “A customer threw a hot chicken at me.”
Weapons: Members reported being threatened with a knife, including a member in Northern Ireland who said, “I had a knife pulled on me and was threatened after I refused to sell alcohol.” Whilst a member in Scarborough explained, “helping to stop shoplifters means I have been verbally abused and had someone threatening to pull out a knife.”
Verbal Abuse is a regular occurrence for shop workers, a member in Tamworth said, “I regularly get called stupid etc by customers and told no wonder you’re in a dead end job.” Whilst a member in Chesterfield who records being verbally abused at least once every week, said, “I have been called a useless twat and a whore as well as the more general name calling.”
Age Restricted Sales: The legal requirements placed on shopworkers around the sale of alcohol and other age restricted products is often a trigger for abuse and violence. A member from Ashford reported that, “Drunk customers often come into the store when I work the night shift, and they often become aggressive if I refuse an alcohol sale.” A member in Pickering, Yorkshire reported that because she requested ID as required to by law that “customers threaten to beat you up when you request ID as part of ‘challenge 25’ scheme.”
Threats outside the workplace: After an incident in store Usdaw members have been told by customers they’ll be found after work. A member in Selkirk reported that, “I was threatened with a bottle and also told to watch my back on my way home.” A shopworker in Lisburn, who had already had a hoover and bottle of vodka thrown at her, was told by a customer that “he was going to get me outside when I finished my shift.” Whilst a shopworker in the East Midlands said, “a woman threatened to wait for me after work.” A shop worker in Ayr reported how a normal interaction with a customer can quickly escalate, “A male customer told me that I had short-changed him, it was all checked and balanced so he said he would follow me home.”
Physical Assaults: A woman shopworker in Chertsey reported that, “a male customer grabbed me by the collar and also cornered me against the gate.” A member in Corby has said that being verbally abused every week but in the last 12 months she has, “been pushed to ground, threatened and spat at by customers.” A Birmingham shopworker has reported being assaulted several times in the last 12 months, “I have had my finger twisted, been scratched, spat on, sworn at and had racist comments made to me.” Whilst a member in Lossiemouth was assaulted by a male customer who, “grabbed my wrist so he could take photos of me.”
Notes for editors:
Usdaw (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) is the UK's fourth biggest and the fastest growing trade union with over 435,000 members. Membership has increased by more than 10% in the last five years and by nearly a third in the last decade. Most Usdaw members work in the retail sector, but the Union also has many members in transport, distribution, food manufacturing, chemicals and other trades.
Respect for Shopworkers Week 2016 takes place on 14-20 November. It is an annual event where shopworkers talk to the public about the problems of violence threats and abuse, asking customers to ‘keep their cool’. Part of the campaign will be encouraging shopworker not to take abuse as part of the job and report incidents to their manager.
Interim results of the Usdaw’s survey, based on 2,250 responses, show that over the last 12 months 44% were verbally abused and 25% were threatened. 8.4% have been assaulted, with 32% not reporting the incident.
For Usdaw press releases visit: www.usdaw.org.uk/news and you can follow us on Twitter @UsdawUnion