Emma Satyamurti, discusses calls on the government to make violence against shop floor workers a specific criminal offence.
It is never acceptable to experience violence and abuse in any setting, but it is perhaps more shocking when it is in your workplace because you expect measures to be in place to protect you.
The pandemic has been an unsettling and stressful time for us all, but one thing that has remained constant is the hard work of supermarket shop floor workers who put themselves at an increased risk to keep our fridges and cupboards stocked.
This makes it even more galling that retailers have reported a surge in incidents of violence against shop floor workers over recent years, which they say has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Since March 2020 shop floor staff have found themselves taking on new and difficult responsibilities such as enforcing rules like social distancing and wearing face masks.
An increase in responsibility has been met with an increase in anti-social behaviour. For example, the Co-op reported a near 10% increase in violent incidents in 2020 compared with 2019.
With this in mind, it is unsurprising that a recent survey by Leigh Day found that 9 in 10 supermarket shop floor workers are more aware of issues in the workplace after working on the frontline during the pandemic.
A number of supermarket shop floor workers told us that working during the pandemic made them feel unsafe, undervalued and unsupported.
Some of their comments included:
“Customers come in and they’re not following safety measures and no one is enforcing them. It feels like Asda is more concerned about profit than our safety.”
“We’re now classed as frontline workers, but it just doesn’t feel like we get the recognition we deserve for the work that we do. Yes, demand in the distribution centres is high but they don’t have the face-to-face interactions with the customers, they’re not getting the abuse and the confrontation.”
“In the first couple of weeks of Coronavirus when the store was still open at night it was horrendous. We had customers fighting and getting into the cages to pull products out before we’d had chance to unpack them.”
Something needs to change so that shop floor workers feel safe and valued.
Since the pandemic, supermarket workers have finally been recognised as key workers and praised for their dedication. The government thanked “all those working tirelessly in our supermarkets to make sure the public can continue to access essential goods”.
But recognition isn’t all these hardworking women and men need. It’s time for the government to convert its words of encouragement into meaningful action.
Recently, the Commons Home Affairs Committee said the “patchwork” of legislation currently in place to combat violence against shop workers is not adequate and called for attacks to be a specific criminal offence.
This was welcomed by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), who wrote to the government, calling for an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to help tackle escalating violence and abuse against retail staff.
Last week MPs rejected such an amendment, begging the question, what needs to happen for shop floor workers to be given the respect and protections they deserve?
It seems that time and time again shop floor workers are let down, whether that’s by the government in letting an opportunity to improve safety in the workplace pass them by, or by employers who fail to see that the work they do is of equal value to that of distribution centre workers.
Leigh Day has long been an advocate of supermarket workers. We won’t let them down and we won’t stop championing their rights.