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It is long past time we end the abuse of retail workers

4 min read

On Wednesday I will bring a motion to Parliament to make verbal or physical abuse of all frontline workers a criminal offence.

"Being on the receiving end of abuse at work is just expected at this point".

This is what one of my constituents told me in a recent survey about abuse at work. I’ve heard from numerous frontline workers – shop assistants, cashiers, bus drivers, NHS staff, receptionists, care workers, and more – who have been sworn at, spat at, pushed, had trolleys rammed into them, full baskets of shopping thrown at them, or had frankly unrepeatable threats shouted their way – all whilst trying to do their job.

The recent scenes in the national media of ASDA workers in Clapham being violently attacked in their workplace were shocking. The footage of a man punching a female member of staff and beating another customer with a weapon rightly provoked a wave of disgust, alongside calls from my own union, GMB – who also represent these workers – to toughen up the law. 

Whilst government politicians have been quick to clap key workers for keeping our country going during the pandemic, there has been little in the way of actual, concrete support for our frontline staff. Instead, many of them have been left ill-equipped and unprotected whilst having to enforce mask wearing and social distancing or deal with the repercussions of over-stretched and under-funded services.

The pandemic of abuse must end – which is why I’m fighting for a change in the law

With 80 per cent of the UK’s workforce working in customer-facing roles, this mounting abuse is affecting millions of people, not just in my constituency but across the country.

According to the Institute of Customer Service, more than half of customer-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers since the start of the pandemic. According to The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers’ latest survey, published in February 2021, of over 2,700 retail workers, almost 9 in 10 were verbally abused last year. The survey showed 60 per cent reported threats of physical violence and 9 per cent said they had been physically assaulted. 

Three out of four said levels of abuse had increased during the pandemic.

But this isn’t just a “Covid problem”. Even before the outbreak, the Crime Report 2020 said that 83 per cent of people in the convenience store sector have been subjected to verbal abuse over the previous year and there were more than 50,000 incidents of violence estimated, with 25 per cent resulting in injury.

The pandemic of abuse must end – which is why I’m fighting for a change in the law.

On Wednesday I will bring a motion to Parliament, backed by the Institute of Customer Service, the Cooperative Party, and trade unions representing a wide range of sectors, to make verbal or physical abuse of all frontline workers a criminal offence.

The motion builds on the 2018 Protect the Protectors Act, which made the assault of an emergency worker while they carry out their duties a specific criminal act. Whilst a hugely positive step, the law has been inconsistently applied and fails to protect a whole subsect of frontline workers in customer-facing roles.

Creating a new, broader offence which relates to all public-facing, frontline workers, would encourage law enforcement to proactively investigate and support complaints against perpetrators. It would also mean frontline workers feel empowered to speak up and report incidents of abuse, knowing they will be listened to and investigated.

It’s vital, too, that part of our discussion includes what employers can do to protect workers, with better reporting, support and more robust pursuit of prosecutions.  

After everything our front-line workers have done to keep this country going over the past year, fighting to keep the NHS afloat, to ensure the buses and trains are running, and working impossibly hard to keep our supermarket shelves stacked, it is surely long past time we end the abuse. Together we can make the government listen and ensure everyone has the safety and the dignity they’re entitled to at work.


Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam.

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