Usdaw have called for urgent government action after a shock survey revealed a rise in verbal and physical abuse of retail workers during the coronavirus crisis – with some shopworkers reporting being coughed on and spat at by offenders.
Shopworker and retail sector trade union Usdaw has revealed that, on average, UK retail staff have been verbally abused, threatened or assaulted every week during the current crisis.
The survey has revealed that abuse and violence towards shopworkers has doubled since the coronavirus outbreak, with some respondents reporting being spat at and coughed on by members of the public.
Usdaw said that although not all retail staff have suffered to this extent, some have experienced worse – with one in six being abused in some way on every shift they work.
The survey of nearly 5,000 shopworkers found that since 14 March, 62% had experienced verbal abuse, nearly a third had been threatened and 4% had suffered a physical assault.
Usdaw added that when the data is averaged across all three million retail sector workers in the UK, it adds up to more than 3,500 assaults currently taking place every day.
The union has called for urgent action from the government to address the problem, including increasing police activity in supermarkets and stores to help keep workers safe.
Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis 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.”
Mr Lillis went on to say that, as well as the increase in abuse and assaults, Usdaw’s members are also reporting concerns that shoppers are not adhering to social distancing measures in stores.
Staff taking part in the survey told Usdaw that they had been spat on, sneezed at and coughed at when asking customers to practice social distancing. Some also reported being pushed and abused verbally when trying to enforce buying limits on certain in-demand products such as toilet rolls and hand sanitiser.
One worker told the union:
“Customers are getting worse and are refusing to listen to store staff as this situation continues. Whole families are shopping together and others are meeting at the store and using it as a place to gather.”
Another is quoted as saying:
“I have been spat at, pushed and treated as if I wasn’t there. Customers have walked up to me or leaned over me while I am filling shelves.”
Usdaw’s Paddy Lillis said:
“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.”
Speaking on the issues raised by Usdaw’s survey, Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said:
“Shopworkers are at the very frontline of the coronavirus emergency. They are doing incredible work, often putting themselves at risk, in order to provide vital supplies and keep people fed.
“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.”
Usdaw believes their survey figures could actually be an underestimation, as 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.