Vernon Coaker on ensuring shop workers get the protections they deserve
Respect for Shopworkers Week is an annual event organised by the trade union Usdaw and supported by many retail employers and organisations, including the Co-op Group, British Retail Consortium and Association of Convenience Stores. Taking place this week, it highlights the appalling levels of abuse, and all too often violence, that retail workers face while simply going about their jobs.
During the pandemic, many of these same workers helped keep food and essential supplies on the shelves for their communities. A survey, however, of those serving on the frontline showed that abuse of retail workers doubled during the first few months of the pandemic, with one in six reporting daily verbal attacks. Sadly, these were often triggered by the very things they were doing to keep the rest of us safe, promoting and enforcing public health measures, social distancing and mask wearing.
Since then, the situation hasn’t improved. Usdaw’s latest annual survey, released this week, reveals that in the past year nine in ten retail workers have been verbally abused, 64% threatened, and one in ten assaulted. The Co-op Group has seen a 12% increase in violent assaults in the first 9 months of 2021 compared to 2020 and an almost 700% rise over the past six years. A trend that is typical of much of the sector.
Nearly half of the respondents to the Usdaw survey don’t believe that reporting the abuse they have faced makes a difference. Indeed, it’s clear the police have not viewed attacks against shopworkers as a priority. A Freedom of Information request made by the Co-op Group showed that the police did not attend 65% of the reported serious incidents in its stores last year. None of this is acceptable.
Abuse is not part of the job and it should never become normalised, common, or accepted. Nobody should be going to work expecting to face abuse, threats, and violence. But if it does happen, they need to be confident that the system is on their side. The current situation clearly needs to change and the only way to do that is through strong and decisive action at Parliament.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the scale of the problem, and a clear call for action – from workers, employees, and representative groups from across the sector – the UK government has so far failed to respond. In stark contrast to the Scottish Parliament, which has unanimously backed Labour MSP Daniel Johnson’s Protection of Workers Act.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently making its way through the Lords, provides an opportunity to give retail workers the protection they deserve. Along with others in the House, I have tabled amendments that would do exactly that – and these are due to be debated this evening. It's not too late for Ministers to act but should they fail, we will look to give MPs another chance for a say on this hugely important issue.
Lord Vernon Coaker of Gedling is a Shadow Home Office Minister. He tweets @Vernon_Coaker
Published 17th November 2021