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Shop workers are key workers, they are the silent heroes in our community, overlooked and underappreciated for too long. But they don’t just need our thanks, they need legislative action.
Throughout the course of the past 18 months, we have all come to appreciate the public service that shop workers provide. They went above and beyond during the pandemic, risking their own health so that we could shop safely and put food on our tables. But appallingly, shop workers all too often paid the price for that bravery in the form of abuse, threats and even violence from customers.
Since the beginning of pandemic, surveys have shown that the long-term trend of increasing violence against shop workers has skyrocketed. Violence against retail workers doubled at the start of the pandemic – with reports of staff sworn at, spat on, and physically assaulted for enforcing social distancing. Over 2020, USDAW reported that nearly 90 per cent of shop workers were verbally abused, 60 per cent threatened with physical violence and shockingly almost 10 per cent reporting having been physically assaulted.
From enforcing mask wearing to restricting the sale of alcohol, acid and knives, it’s staff on the shop floor who we expect to enforce the laws that Parliament makes
You might not think of shop workers as enforcers of the law, but increasingly that’s what we ask them to do. From enforcing mask wearing to restricting the sale of alcohol, acid and knives, it’s staff on the shop floor who we expect to enforce the laws that Parliament makes. If we ask people to provide a public service and enforce the law, they should have extra protection under the law.
That’s why we’re both proud that today, the Protection of Workers (Scotland) Act that Daniel introduced to the Scottish Parliament will come into force – creating a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening, abusing, obstructing or hindering a retail worker, aggravated when that worker was in the course of carrying out the law.
We’re glad that Scottish shop workers will now have the extra legal protections they need and deserve. But why should a shop worker in Swansea or Southampton have any less protection than a shop worker in Stirling? That’s why our fight doesn’t end here.
It’s well past time the government in Westminster gave this problem the attention it urgently requires. Westminster should follow Scotland’s lead, get tough on those who level this behaviour, and give retail workers across the UK the proper protection they need.
This is an issue that has united workers and employers alike, with the shop workers’ trade union USDAW standing alongside all the leading retail employers, co-operative societies, retail trade bodies and more in supporting new legislation in Westminster. The public back it overwhelmingly too: recent polling from the co-operative party reported that nearly 90 per cent of the British public back a new law to protect shop workers across the UK from rising levels of violence.
In Westminster, Alex introduced a new bill on retail violence – but without support from the government, its progress stalled. The Home Affairs Select Committee’s recent report on retail violence also called for a new criminal offence to protect retail workers, following what it called a “shocking” upsurge in violence. But still, the government claimed existing measures were sufficient.
But finally, change is on the horizon. At the recent report stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, two amendments – one from the Conservative backbenches and one from the Labour Leadership – sought to give shop workers the protections they need, demonstrating cross-party support for this issue.
Indeed, Daniel’s Bill was supported unanimously by Scottish Conservatives. In the face of widespread support from across the House, and in order to quell its own backbenches and see the Conservative amendment withdrawn, the government committed to revisiting the issue when the legislation continued to the Lords – giving hope that finally Westminster might move on this crucial matter.
At the next stage of the PCSC Bill, we need to hold the government to their promises. This is not an issue solely caused by the pandemic: levels of retail violence have been on the rise over the past decade. Shop workers are key workers, they are the silent heroes in our community, overlooked and underappreciated for too long. But they don’t just need our thanks, they need legislative action. It’s time for Westminster to follow Scotland, and ensure that violence, threats and abuse don’t continue to be ‘part of the job’ for shop workers.
Daniel Johnson is the Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern. Alex Norris is the Labour MP for Nottingham North.
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