Attacks on retail workers should be made a specific criminal offence, a group of MPs has said.
The home affairs committee said there had been a “shocking” increase in the level of violence and abuse directed at shop workers over the past five years and employers needed to do more to support victims.
According to the Association of Convenience Stores 89% of people working in local shops have experienced some form of abuse, while Co-op has reported a fourfold increase in violent crime between 2014 and 2020.
The committee also heard evidence that violence and abuse towards shop workers had worsened during the pandemic. The Usdaw union reported that 76% of shop workers felt the behaviour they had experienced had been worse than usual over the past 18 months.
In a report published today, the home affairs committee calls for a stronger policing response; proper recording of violence against shop workers to allow better monitoring of the situation; an “employers charter” setting out how organisations should support and protect staff, including training, reporting, security and counselling; and a new criminal offence “to send a powerful and long overdue message that assaults on retail workers will not be tolerated”.
It calls on the government to consult urgently on the scope of a new criminal offence.
Violence in retail
Committee chair Yvette Cooper said: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, retail workers kept our communities going and they deserve our thanks and gratitude. It is even more shameful, then, that abuse and assaults against shopworkers went up during the pandemic, and it is completely unacceptable that these attacks have become so commonplace in our society.”
Cooper said that police often did not take abuse against retail workers seriously enough and workers had been left to deal with trauma alone.
“Those who abuse and assault shop workers must not be allowed to reoffend with impunity. Policing leaders must step up and make this a priority for local forces – with more neighbourhood police, clear plans to identify repeat offenders, respond to incidents swiftly and better record and understand patterns of local crimes,” she said.
“Other public workers have rightly been afforded extra protection by the law in recognition of the public service they provide and the increased risks they face, and a standalone offence for assault on emergency workers has produced promising early results in increasing prosecutions. Violence and abuse towards shop workers must be treated with the same seriousness and those workers must be afforded similar protection in law.”
The committee heard that shopworkers on the receiving end of violence and abuse often received little support from their employers.
The government response to a call for evidence in 2019 stated: “Individuals reported being told ‘to get on with the job’ after reporting instances of verbal abuse and a culture in which managers tended to side with customers rather than employees, potentially as a result of believing that the customer ‘is always right’. Some respondents also felt that managers tended to focus on preserving the reputation of the store and did not always challenge unacceptable behaviour by customers.”
A survey conducted by Usdaw in 2020 found that 38% of retail workers wanted more management support and 24% wanted offenders to be banned.
The home affairs committee’s report says: “Employers have a duty of care and play a vital role in ensuring their employees have the confidence to report incidents, and the appropriate support to deal with difficult situations. Evidence from our public survey, and the government’s 2019 call for evidence, suggests that many retail workers are not getting the support they need from their employers.”
Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said the introduction of a stand-alone offence for assaulting a retail worker would encourage prosecutions and act as a deterrent against violence.
“When retail employers, leading retail bodies and the shopworkers’ trade union jointly call for legislation, it is time for the government and MPs to listen,” said Lillis.
“In Scotland, MSPs voted through a new ground-breaking law to give shopworkers the protection they deserve. We are now looking for MPs to support key workers across the retail sector and help turn around the UK government’s opposition.”