Majority of retail staff experienced abuse at work last year, study finds

Trade union calls on government to do more to protect workers as experts highlight HR’s role in ensuring appropriate training and embedding standards of behaviour

Most staff working in the retail sector have been assaulted, abused or threatened at work during the last year, a new study has found.

Usdaw, the retail trade union, surveyed nearly 2,000 people working in retail over the past 12 months and found that 92 per cent had experienced verbal abuse. A further 70 per cent had been threatened by a customer, and 14 per cent had been physically assaulted.

Despite this, one in five victims said they have never reported an incident to their employer, including five per cent who had been assaulted.

Speaking about their experience, one retail worker said: “We get daily verbal abuse from people attempting to shoplift, people not following social distancing measures, intoxicated people and people who have been asked to provide proof of age or refused service for intoxication.”

Another reported a shoplifter tried to “head-butt” them, while another said they had a van driven at them.

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said it was “appalling” and a “disgrace” that people are abusing shop workers “at a time when we should all be working together to get through this national crisis”.

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In response to the figures, Usdaw has launched its Freedom from Fear campaign, calling on the government to offer more protection to workers. The campaign coincides with a new protection of workers law which came into force in Scotland this week.

Lillis added: “Government action to protect shopworkers is needed. We welcome the new law in Scotland but are deeply disappointed that the UK government has continued to resist a similar measure in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

“Retail staff across the UK have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.”

In June this year, ministers rejected calls for a new legislation to protect retail workers and other frontline staff, saying that the current legislation was enough.

Chris Philp, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Home Office, said that this sort of behaviour was already criminal, and what is needed is “to get more convictions and that starts with reporting”.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, welcomed the campaign by Usdaw urging retail workers to report unfair treatment. 

“It’s shocking to know that so many of these workers have experienced abuse and even assault,” she said. “HR has an important role to play by being proactive in embedding expected standards of behaviour around dignity and respect. They need to ensure that store managers are trained in how to communicate these in stores and deal firmly and appropriately with any incidents.”

Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said retail workers faced violence and abuse every day just for doing their jobs and “nobody should go to work fearing for their safety”.

“Behind each of these statistics is a person, a family, colleagues and communities that have to cope with this trauma,” she added.