Last week I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate in response to a petition rightly calling for greater protection for retail workers. A petition that has had over 100,000 signatures demonstrating that many people across the four nations of the UK care a great deal about seeing these workers given the protections they deserve.
Many of us have previously worked in retail, including myself, when just a boy at school. As a result, we have first-hand experiences of the challenges faced by workers in this industry and can understand the desire from current workers to see greater protections for them while at work.
Verbal abuse and violence against retail staff has been increasing for some time.
A British Retail Consortium survey finds that this has accelerated due to COVID safety measures and is now up to 455 incidents a day.
Significant triggers for these incidents include challenging customers for identification and encountering shoplifters.
Last year, the Scottish Grocers’ Federation crime survey indicated increased verbal or physical abuse in 2020 in the retail sector. Such appalling behaviour is entirely unacceptable; shop workers are fully entitled to work free from the threat of violence or abuse.
We must start with the fundamental principle that no one should have to face violence or abuse in their workplace. Yet the figures show too many of our friends in retail are, and it’s getting worse.
Over the past twelve months, while many of us have protected ourselves and families from the safety and comfort of our own homes, many retail workers provided an essential frontline service. Making sure our shops remained stocked so we could access the essentials we needed.
We have expected a great deal of these workers. Asking them to brave the pandemic, putting themselves at potential risk of the virus, while asking them to help us implement the measures to help keep us all safe – masks, social distancing.
And what are their thanks? In the last year, violence and abuse against those very workers has soared.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government has responded to this issue, supporting a Bill that gives greater protections in law to retail workers and is assisting with a new awareness-raising campaign to highlight the impact of the abuse, threats, and violence on retail staff. The campaign is being delivered by Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation and is backed by £50,000 of Scottish Government funding.
Sadly, this commitment is not replicated across all other nations in the UK.
The UK Government’s response in September 2020 was staggering. The Government indicated they were not persuaded that a specific offence was needed as a wide range of crimes already exist covering assaults against workers, including shop workers. But this response fails the retail industry and turns a deaf ear to their pleas for action.
In my contribution, I called for the UK Government to revisit this position.
However, sadly there is a common thread emerging with this UK Government – a failure to deliver for workers.
We have seen no protections for workers since COVID or as a result of COVID. There was no Employment Bill in the last two Queen’s speeches in response to the Taylor review – a Bill that should deal with exploitative contracts and short-term shift changes. And, no Bill to ban disgraceful Fire and Rehire.
This UK Government gives platitudes with one hand but does not deliver protections and legislation with the other.
If we are to build a fairer society, it needs to enhance and protect the workers’ rights that were hard-fought for. Frankly, if the UK Government will not provide those employment rights, they should devolve the responsibility to the Scottish Parliament—the Scottish Parliament will ensure that it does offer them.