Last week in Parliament I joined with John Hannett, General Secretary of the retail union Usdaw, to campaign for respect for shopworkers as part of the Freedom From Fear Campaign, which seeks to prevent violence, threats and abuse directed at retail staff.
The campaign event took place in Parliament the day after the Government blocked a Labour amendment to the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which would have introduced a specific additional offence of assaulting a worker serving the public.
The amendment would have extended existing protections for police officers and Scottish emergency service workers to all workers serving the public, by making the assault of a worker serving the public an offence in its own right. At the moment, under sentencing guidelines, assaulting a worker is an aggravating factor, but there are concerns this is not being applied when decisions are made about prosecutions and sentencing.
It is too often that retail employees are confronted with violence, threats and abuse and it is really important we stand by together and ask people to ‘keep their cool and respect shopworkers’.
I voted for Labour’s amendment to provide for stiffer sentences for offenders and I was very disappointed to see Tory and Lib Dem MPs combining to block it going forward. There is a real need to address the scourge of workers being assaulted and I am concerned that assailants are getting away with relatively lenient sentences.
Like the thug, given a suspended sentence for assault, who goes out to celebrate his ‘lenient’ sentence and launches a vile racist attack on a woman shopworker, assaults her by pulling out chunks of her hair and walks free from court again. Or a man who grabbed a shopworker and pushed him back against a window. He then walked off shouting that he was going to ‘get him’. In court he was told his suspended sentence for a previous offence would not be activated.
And in other cases, where the offender often isn’t charged at all and victims are left feeling that no one cares that they were assaulted. Like Val, who was punched on the jaw when she asked a persistent shoplifter to leave, because they’d been barred from the store. Val gave a statement and the police saw the CCTV footage. The attacker was arrested but nothing more has happened.
These cases do not suggest to me that the issue of violence against shopworkers is being taken seriously. I will continue to campaign with Usdaw for a change in the law to ensure that proper punishments are given out and to give a clear message that assaulting workers who are serving the public is totally unacceptable.
John Hannett, Usdaw General Secretary, told me some appalling stories of shopworkers who, in the course of their duties are expected to enforce the law, whether that is preventing under-age purchases or detaining shoplifters until the police arrive, and can be put in real danger.
Usdaw has conducted a Freedom From Fear Survey Report 2013, to highlight shopworkers’ experiences over the last year. The interim findings from the first 1,844 responses, are:
- Victims of verbal abuse: 49%
- Shopworkers threatened: 35%
- Violent assaults: 4%
I am proud to support Respect for Shopworker Week 2013 which takes place on 11 – 15 November. It is an annual event where shopworkers talk to the public about the problems of violence threats and abuse, asking customers to ‘keep their cool’. Part of the campaign will be encouraging shopworkers not to take abuse as part of the job and report incidents to their manager.