Coronavirus: shopworker assaults double as tensions rise

Paddy Lillis

The average UK shopworker has been verbally abused, threatened or assaulted every week during the coronavirus emergency, according to a survey conducted by shopworkers trade union Usdaw.

A similar Usdaw poll for 2019 found the average was nearly once a fortnight, suggesting incidents have doubled in the last month.

While not all shopworkers suffer to this extent, some experience much worse – with one in six abused on every shift. Usdaw’s survey of 4,928 shopworkers found that since the Coronavirus outbreak:

  • 62% of UK shopworkers experienced verbal abuse
  • almost a third were threatened by a customer
  • 4% were assaulted, which amounts to more than 3,500 incidents every day when averaged across all retail workers.

Usdaw believes the figures are an underestimation because the survey analysis assumes each respondent was only assaulted once and it was conducted in mainly larger trade union organised stores, which tend to be safer than smaller non-unionised workplaces.

The union called for urgent action to tackle the problem and Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has sought assurances from government that tackling these crimes is a policing priority throughout this crisis.

Respondents to the survey recorded a catalogue of shocking incidents that included verbal abuse, swearing, spitting, threatening behaviour and violence. Flashpoints included limiting purchases, asking customers to pay by card rather than cash and attempts to carry out social distancing.

There were also reports of customers deliberately coughing or sneezing on staff.

One respondent said: “We have been threatened with violence and have had to make police reports about members of the public threatening to ‘bash our faces in’ when we leave the store after our shifts. We are regularly subjected to verbal abuse, usually surrounding low/zero stock and restrictions on certain products.”

Usdaw’s General Secretary Paddy Lillis (pictured) said: “We are shocked that violence, threats and abuse have doubled during this national emergency. At a time when we should all be working together to get through this crisis, it is a national disgrace that people working to keep food on the shelves for their local communities are being abused and assaulted.

“Urgent action is required. Our message is clear, abuse is not part of the job.

“Life on the frontline of retail is normally pretty tough for many shopworkers and has become much worse during the coronavirus emergency. Shopworkers are on the frontline of feeding the country, providing an essential service in very difficult circumstances, working long hours in busy stores, facing abuse from customers and of course concerned they may contract Covid-19.

“The safety of our members is absolutely paramount, but they tell us that some of the shopping public are resisting social distancing measures in stores and can become abusive when asked to queue and maintain a two-metre gap. Our message to the public is there is no excuse for abusing shopworkers, please treat our members with the respect they deserve.

“So there needs to be action to help protect staff. We want the Government to legislate for 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. Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.

“Shops are the cornerstone of our communities, but they can only operate with staff, who clearly do not have the option to work from home. We continue to work with retailers to improve health and safety for staff. We also call on customers to stay calm and respect shopworkers.”

Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds added: “It is absolutely appalling that in carrying out their vital roles, workers are facing this abuse, when they should be receiving heartfelt thanks from the people they are serving. Labour want to thank Usdaw for carrying out this important research and we will be seeking assurances from government that tackling these crimes is a policing priority throughout this crisis.”